Saturday 27 January 2018

Recoil or Ricochet?

Further to the questions raised about the Gauls and tribal foot in Polemos: SPQR on JWH’s Heretical Wargaming blog, which I wrote about last week, there were also questions raised about the meaning of recoiling in games and how this might relate to what happens on battlefields. This is not of course unique to the Polemos games, many rule sets, both ancient and modern, have some concept of recoiling from the enemy.

What then is a recoil? The basic idea seems to be along the lines of a unit being attacked and flinching away from the enemy, usually in a rearward direction. We do read, from time to time, in battle reports such sentences as ‘the guard flinched from the hail of shot’, or ‘the cavalry recoiled from the steadfast foot’ or something of that nature. The idea seems to be that the human beings concerned, collectively, attempted to reduce the potential harm to themselves by removing themselves from proximity to the harmers.

In general, in a wargame, this is handled by a recoil. A unit is moved back a certain distance. This, at least in more modern rule sets (I’ll pick a set at random, one that I know, say PM: SPQR) that the base of troops recoiling moves backwards by the depth of the base, perhaps losing their orders should they have any and breaking the continuity of the larger body of troops of which they were a part. This has the effect of removing any support they could have provided for colleagues in adjacent bases and, possibly, of opening them up to fighting at a disadvantage because those bases are now overlapped by the base from which the recoilers have removed themselves.

Thus, I think we can safely conclude, the recoil is a game mechanism which shows the effects of being on the losing side of a combat, although not catastrophically or irretrievably.. But it is a wargame rule mechanism. Criticism of the mechanism can suggest that firstly, the distances involved are too great. A base may well move back the distance of the width of the unit, but that is not the depth of the base. There could be some discrepancy here between the base depth and the depth of the unit as deployed. This is usually rationalised as the base depth as the distance over which the unit has ‘control’ (whatever that means, hence the scare quotes); the depth of the men deployed is a whole lot less.

Given that, the recoil a base depth, breaking any formation, seems rather a large penalty for the adjacent units. They are now much more exposed and vulnerable than they were because their friends have just flinched back a sizeable chunk of geography. This, of course, can have knock on effects and the whole group of bases can, in theory (although given the vagaries of dice rolling, probably not in practice) , be recoiled a base depth, hence yielding quite a lot of space to the enemy.

Nevertheless, from small advantages greater advantages can grow. A unit flinching away can cause, ultimately, the collapse of the whole body of which they are a part. This, surely, has to be represented somehow. Furthermore, I think it is reasonably fair to say that troops in other than larger bodies have more flexibility. Skirmishers, for example, are more or less expected to do something like recoiling as a matter of course.

My view on skirmishers is still evolving. I am less convinced than I was that ancient (or even early modern) skirmishers formed up in dispersed skirmish lines, reminiscent of modern troops. Modern troops adopt this formation for very good reasons, mostly dispersal to minimise the effects of machine guns, automatic weapons and, especially, high explosive artillery fire. None of these apply to ancient warfare. Thus, I think that skirmishers tended to be in unformed but fairly close formations, with groups of men sent out to throw javelins at the enemy, and then run back. The unit formed a safe place for them to run back to and have a bit of a breather while someone else had a go.

A skirmish unit, therefore, is much more likely to recoil a base width or so (DBA has a ‘flee’ move, after all) than a unit is a formed body. So far as I know this sort of distinction is rarely made in wargame rules (guilty as charged). However, I realised that I have, inadvertently, come up with a solution.

The model we are after is that a unit in a formed body might be narrowly beaten by the force in front of them, and be forced to carry on fighting at a bit of a disadvantage, but is not forced back far enough necessarily to break the continuity of the body of which it is a part. Some advantage is to be given to their opponents, but not a free hand. On the other hand, isolated or skirmishing units might wish to fall back further out of harm’s way.

A while ago I posted about needing recoil markers, and some of you were kind enough to offer suggestions for what they might look like. I realised a day or two ago that they constituted the solution to this problem of modelling recoil. As the recoil was marked anyway (because I need to remember who has recoiled) I can recoil units without them necessarily breaking formation. This may well obviate the slightly odd situation I obtained recently where a base of pikes was continually recoiled and landed up half way towards their base line, still in combat but a long way from any friends or foes except their immediate enemy.

With the recoil markers, then, a unit which loses the immediate combat can be marked as being at a disadvantage for the next round of combat but need not (unless it decides to) recoil the standard base depth. The continuity of the unit is preserved and the odder results are removed. The only cost is another sort of marker, which I was using anyway.

Furthermore, as in the Wars of the Counter Reformation rules I have a sliding scale of two recoils being equal to a shaken, I think I can model the general decline of unit cohesion rather better than I have previously. I’m not sure. Playtesting will tell, I guess.


  1. Tricky one to get right. I like the recoil rule in Polemos MdeE but see what you mean about it potentially being harsh. I guess that's the problem with no figure removal type games - makes it hard to show smaller gradations of attrition without record keeping.

    How about giving the side who gets the recoil the choice of accepting a push back or a 'loss' marker? That way if the push back is not going to imperil the wider formation this option is open. Stand in close proximity to the enemy and suffer 'losses'.

    1. I was thinking of something similar - troops in formation can choose, skirmishers and the like recoil anyway.

      The problem with figure removal is, of course, that that is out of scale in another way. I suppose there is no ideal solution.

  2. A neat solution to the problem. I personally find recoil moves unsatisfactory - too great to represent a slight disadvantage (ancient troops would have realised the vital importance of maintaining a solid line in melee), but not enough to show a definite victory.

    1. Yes, I think recoils are too far and do too much damage to a formation. On the other hand, markers are a pain. You pays your money and makes your choice, I suppose.