Saturday, 26 November 2011

Orders and Actions

There has been a little discussion over my ‘Chains of Command’ post from a few weeks ago, and also a question about orders in the Polemos: SPQR system, so I thought I’d try to expand on these points.

Essentially, the question boils down to the effect of generals on battles. I argued in the original post that the New Model Army generals at the battle of Naseby took, between them, less than half a dozen decisions during the whole action.

For those of you not familiar with Polemos: SPQR, the command system distinguishes between general orders, such as ‘advance’ and unit orders such as ‘open fire because the enemy are in range’. The general orders require resources from the commander of the army to start, while the unit orders are ‘free’, in the sense that the unit commander issues them.

Someone raised the question of how much a unit with ‘advance’ orders has to advance. There is no minimum in the rules, and I did not expect there to have to be one. But, my correspondent pointed out, there is nothing to exclude ‘cheesy’ moves such as advancing by one millimetre. Presumably this sort of thing is used so the unit can ‘wait’ for a suitable opportunity and then pounce of a convenient enemy flank or something of the case.

Now, I proposed previously that it was just as well that rules give wargamers command at various levels, as general and also as assorted unit commanders. The command and control system within a wargame is thus to prevent wargamers as generals having too much power and influence directly over their units, while at the same time permitting wargamers as unit commanders some flexibility and input, if only to keep interest in the game between the big decisions.

The upshot of this, however, is that the determination of an individual unit’s moves is still undertaken by the army commander, as these people are the same wargamer.

My initial reaction when this issue was pointed out was along the lines of ‘well, if people insist on playing like that, don’t play with them’. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, however.

The historical issue is a live one, though. Units did lag; commanders did drag their feet. This was not usually to gain some tactical advantage (although it did happen; think of Nelson) but through cowardice, political intrigue, incompetence and so on.

In a historical scenario, the offending commander would probably be relieved of his command on the spot and, in some cases, executed either on the field or shortly afterwards. Some, of course, may well commit suicide first; this was the honourable way out for Roman commanders accused of cowardice, such as the commander of the Second legion in Britain in the aftermath of Boudicca’s revolt, Poenius Posthumus. This, the honour school of warfare, is not covered by the normal run of wargame rules.

There is another issue here, as indicated in a comment by Timeshadows. There is a reception period for the orders from high command, before the unit commander can react, and then, indeed another one before the unit acts. It was suggested that there should be a dice for reception, interpretation and implementation of the orders. Our wargame units react almost immediately to the reception of new orders; it was not so historically.

So, how on earth can we try to get out of this maze? We need to allow some unit commander flexibility without permitting the misuse of this for cheesy gamesmanship. Furthermore, we need to build in some delay due to the reception and interpretation of orders, and also some mechanism to account for the fact that orders could be lost, or misinterpreted. And, on top of that, the system we adopt needs to be fool proof, simple and transparent.

Various systems have been adopted that I have seen. One is Piquet, where the movement of units and resolution of combats is determined by the use of a card deck. This seems to work OK, but the construction of the card deck simply shifts the problem elsewhere, if you ask me, aside from the fact that all this special production of components pushes the price of the rules up to that of a decent meal out for two.

Another system is the use of courier cards, which is suggested at least in Featherstone’s ‘Solo Wargames’. This does allow for the orders to be delayed or go missing, but as Don himself admits, it seems a little unlikely that the courier will be waylaid by bandits in the rear areas of a major army. The system also does not allow for misinterpretations, although something could be done, I’m sure, with the option of the courier arriving early and the unit moving too soon, but the wargamer would probably prevent that from happening.

The only realistic and feasible system I can think of is a combination of a mild set of courier cards with some sort of unit commander personalisation, which yields a probability of him understanding the orders and carrying them out. This requires a degree of pre-game preparation, in deciding on the characterisation of each of the commanders and recording them all, and then making the rolls during the game. This is probably too much effort for a straightforward “pick up” game, but may well be worthwhile for a campaign or series of connected wargames.

So, what do you do if you play against someone who issues ‘advance’ orders but hardly advances at all? Firstly, as I said, you can threaten not to play against them again. Secondly, you can remove his officer figures for disobeying orders. Thirdly, people who engage in this level of detail often get engrossed in one small part of the overall picture and lose anyway, so perhaps it simply isn’t worth worrying about.

Finally, you could incorporate a personalisation system into your officer characteristics and roll for reception of orders and implementation. That would require us, as wargamers, to have a more hands off approach to our units, and I’m not sure how happy most of us would be with that.


  1. I take your point about playing with people who do "cheesy" moves but how far is reasonable for a minimum move? We find it best to set a minimum.

    As for the removal of dilatory generals on the battlefield. I can only think of the opposite case where the recalcitrant subordinate stayed in post at least until later in the campaign - Lord Sackville at Minden.

    I'm a great believer in the frustrations of command. So if you want the additional complexity, even after spend the required "resources" (Tempo Points/PIPs) simply dice for take up of the order. Options could include delay for one turn, move at slower speed, advance at maximum rate, or veer left/right (the Capt Nolan scenario).

    Possibly not so enjoyable but a little more realistic.

    1. I have been wrestling with Command issues for some time, in that I do not think I have recreated the difficulties very realistically with my WW2 rules: as a General/Player a change of orders is issued and after the appropriate delay it is carried out to the best of the unit's (mine) abilities, more or less word perfect because I wrote it out minutes before!
      At the start of the game, I do roll for unit characteristics (very minor tweaks in most cases) which may vary a unit's execution of orders slightly, making them, well, less identical and generic obviously. This is a unit trait known in advance which I suppose was an influence in the real world and so I have no qualms replicating it in my wargames.
      But I think I need a game mechanic whereby the unit leader quality (amongst other factors) affects how orders are interpreted and when they are acted upon-if only a probability of a 1 turn delay in execution.
      I am talking about WW2 here again, where orders were 'probably frequently' changed (my guess) during the course of a battle. I just want something more elegant than writing an order down and executing it to perfection one move later...still musing but will probably develop something along your suggestions there

    2. I think we are back into the chance and necessity characteristics: a unit necessarily follows orders, but there is a chance it doesn't, or responds slowly etc. The question is how we manage and model that, without it appearing too random or frustrating.

      Changing orders frequently is a recipe for mess and chaos, but not changing orders can be the same. I think we can conceptualise a package of outcomes, but then assigning probabilities from 'automatic response' to 'orders ignored' and all points between gets a little tricky.

  2. :)

    As regards the Commanders personalities, a simple 4 Suit card system, as exemplified by Twilight 2000, which acts as a shorthand for the sort of character.

    Something along the lines of:

    * Spades: Brooding, Suspicious, willing to suffer losses to gain advantage or make a point

    * Clubs: Violent, Evasive, guerilla-warfare, war-crimes, personal challenges

    * Diamonds: Intelligent, Dispassionate, uses scouts, spies, favours and money to alter the circumstances in their favour

    * Hearts: Passionate, Idealistic, moral or honourable and very aware of the social currency of popular support

    The range is from 2 at the low-end of the traits, to Ace as the Paragon of the traits, with J/Q/K having a numeric value of 11, and Ace as 12, as regards a 2d6 or less to act accordingly.

    This is not necessarily representative of T2K's actual system, but as my memory/creativity serves.

    The advantage to this is that as the Commander's Personality is needed, it can be drawn from a standard deck, and tested against (with or without modifiers) with basic dice.

    I hope that helps. :D

  3. Thanks both...

    Timeshadows, I quite like this; the dies that you don't know what the subordinate's character is like appeals to the darker side of my sense of humour. I guess also that the deck could be loaded in favour of, say, Nelson's band of brothers as opposed to the Franco-Spanish band of others.

    Nundanket, I fear you are right and we will never be rid of cheese in wargaming. On the other hand, I'm sure I've read of some Samurai commanders being ordered to do away with themselves so someone else can have a go. I do recall a Charles Grant scenario where Gauls were attacking the Romans at night. They veered off left or right and if they met another unit they might fight them. by the time the Romans were alerted, the Gauls had practically defeated themselves...

    But that was night-fighting, which I guess is even more difficult.