Saturday, 25 February 2012

On Reserves

I’ve recently joined the MiniatureRulesDesign Yahoo! Group, and stumbled into the midst of a lively discussion about the keeping of reserves, and why wargamers do not do so.

A variety of opinions have been presented, along with suggested rule changes that would ensure that wargamers would keep reserves. For example, it was suggested that a reserve must be designated and that it would not be available to be used before turn X of the game. All well and good, I agree, except that reserves were used when they were needed. I mean, can you imagine an aide-de-camp riding up to Napoleon and saying ‘Sorry, Emperor, the Imperial Guard won’t be available for another hour…’

Now, the fact is that wargamers do not usually keep reserves, and I suspect that this is partly due to rules not rewarding the use thereof, and partly due to the ‘6 year old soccer syndrome’.

Try this experiment. Go out to a sports field and watch a group of 6 year old boys play soccer (football). I suspect that you will find the 2 goalkeepers by their posts, and the other 20 players all running after the ball. I certain circumstances, they can look rather like a comet, with a small head and a long streaming tail.

Now watch a game of professional football. The players are spread out all over the ground, often in a recognisable formation. They will be in two lines (given a 4-4-2 formation) and while these may bend around the field, you will usually see them reform in fairly quick order. We might ask the question ‘why to professionals play like this when the 6 year olds do not?’

We might also ask the question ‘what has this got to do with wargame rules?’ but bear with me.

The junior football team is an ‘all hands to the fight’ type of thing. The whole idea of most of the players is to get hold of the ball and score; in a sense it is the last bastion of heroism available to many of us in our world today. The professionals, however, have a different approach. They aim to interact as a team, to outmanoeuvre the opposition, to conserve as much energy as possible and, if you watch a really good team, attack and counterattack as such speed that the opposition cannot react in time.

I suspect that something like this is happening in our wargames. We want to get all hands to the fight, and our rules encourage this. There is little point in having significant reserves at anything but a tactical level. My first line unit may get beaten, routed, removed from play, whatever, but all I really need is another to plug the gap. This is not a grand tactical reserve, but a local one.

I think that this comes about because of a number of factors. Firstly, our units last too long in combat. There are few rules that I know of which force units back and out of the fight through exhaustion, having been in combat for too long. The psychology of men in combat is not particularly well understood, but it seems to me to indicate that individuals, and hence units, are quickly drained by combat. Bases of toy soldiers seem to carry on for ages.

Secondly, it is possible that our moves, for units in combat, are too long, and for those not in combat are too short, or, possibly, the other way around. Someone pointed out that it took the Confederate units 3 hours to assemble for Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, but 20 minutes to cover the same distance in the charge itself. This seems to suggest different move rates for different functions for the same units. I suppose that drawing the units up, dressing the lines and so on takes a lot longer than we suppose.

That said, consider Marlborough’s battles. In quite a few of them he shifted significant forces across the battlefield and into action to wrong-foot his opponent and score stunning victories. This suggests fast movement out of combat for the reserves.

Furthermore, not all armies did keep reserves, and even if they did they were not necessarily useful. At Naseby, the New Model Army had no real reserve. I assume that Fairfax and his colleagues reckoned that with a near 2:1 advantage in troops, they could draw on troops from the second line where the fighting was less intense if they needed to, as indeed happened.

The Royalists, however, did have a fairly large reserve, but it did need to be committed early to try to shore up the line on the left to allow the right to continue its success. It failed, and the result is, as you might say, history.

As a last point, I’d also note some of the battles on the Western Front in World War 1. The first waves were often successful, but by the time they had seized their objectives were spent. The second wave usually ran into heavy artillery barrages as they tried to move forward, and so the exhausted first wave were easily rolled back by fresh enemy troops. The point is that the plans called for the first wave simply to achieve a single objective; after that it was recognised that they would be unable to even hold what they had gained.

Which brings me back to my original point. Do we just allow units in wargames to fight on for too long? I don’t think, certainly in pre-WW1 days, that the actual casualty rate would cause the units to become ‘spent’, but the sheer terror of close fighting could well have this effect.

If our units were not so enthusiastic as to fight for prolonged periods without relief, perhaps we, as wargamers, would be keener on having reserves. But there is still the more hands to the fight argument to worry about; numbers, in the end (c.f. Naseby again) count.


  1. Is the key reason for not keeping a reserve the fact that in typical wargames, all the troops are on the table and, the what and when of reinforcements are known to all players as well? Surprise is so often the key element at all levels of warfare and the main reason to keep a reserve.

    The more kriegspiel-like the game, the more reserves are kept I imagine.


  2. I suspect that it is something like that, yes. We reckon we know what is there, and the more hands to the fight we can bring, the more likely we are to win.

    In this sense, I think that the models we use are probably lacking in making us as tabletop generals deploy in a similar way to the originals.

    That said, I'm still pondering how to make the triple line Roman legion viable in wargame terms.


  3. The underlying issue to my mind is the lack of uncertainty. As well as the point JWH made about typically being able to see all troops on the table, there's too much certainty about how far/fast troops will move and too much certainty in terrain effects. There are no hidden ravines housing an extra fleche, and no lush meadows which turn out to be carp ponds. Terrain is typically either there or not there and if it's there it can be taken account of and built in the mental calculations we make.

    This to an extent can be abstracted by increasing the importance of luck in determining troop performance. What is harder to model is the uncertainty about what the enemy has and where he has them.

    Without more uncertainty players will make the logical decision and throw in as many troops as possible to acheive superiority. Holding back is a positive disadvantage.

  4. I think you have a point. Even if I see a flank attack, I can work out that I can get me units to that point before it arrives and so the issue is mitigated, especially if I can win the game before it arrives.

    To some extent, these issues can be addressed by campaign games, but only to some extent.