Saturday 31 December 2011

Morale in Wargames

What, if anything, do we make of the concept of morale in a wargame? Morale is a slightly odd concept, when you come to think of it. The morale of a unit is determined by the mindset and current worldview of the members of that unit and, in wargame terms, can cause the unit to fight on, recoil, run away or whatever.

Even odder, perhaps, are morale rules in skirmish games. I’ve seen some where the attitude of a single figure is determined by a set of complex rules with modifiers, die rolls and all, just to determine whether the individual charges suicidally or sensibly stays put.

When you come to the level of role playing games, of course, the concept of morale is largely abandoned. In most role playing games, the player characters are the heroes, and do not run away at the drop of a hat or cower in cover.

Mind you, I have seen some games where the player party has done precisely that because the ‘morale’ of the actual players has sunk, or they think they’ve made a mistake and taken the wrong turning. As an umpire there is always a sense of amusement when a simple trick makes the players scarper. In one Call of Cthulhu game, a NPC brandishing a machete was enough to get the PCs to leg it quick time, even though the NPC was not actually going to hit them, just scare them (he succeeded).

In older rules, the concept of morale, in its effects, at least, were clear enough. A unit took casualties, it made a morale check. A unit was ordered to charge, it took a morale check, and so on. Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad idea, but it did rather slow the flow of the game down and also led to some odd situations. I think I’ve mentioned before the uncontrolled charge of a skirmish unit leading to the routing of a third of the opposing army. OK, bad rules, you can argue, but it is how it happened.

In DB* based rules, morale sort of disappears. There are army or ‘command’ break points, so that is a third (or whatever it is) of the army or command is routed then the whole performs less well. This is a hard cut off, though, and makes no account of those times when units or wings fought on effectively.

For example, I suspect under DBR Edgehill would be impossible. The Parliamentary army lost both wings of cavalry, but the infantry fought on and obtained at least a draw, if not a winning one. I’ve not done the numbers, but I think that the battle would be declared lost under DBR when they lost the second wing of cavalry: two out of three commands broken and a significant chunk of bases routed would, I think, spell defeat.

Another feature of the DB* system is that unit morale has vanished. This, I think, is a good thing (© Sellars & Yeateman). Checking a unit’s morale every time it is shot at or tries to move is a pain, and, in some senses, irrelevant. If we assume that a unit will follow orders, and that the base area of the unit covers more than the footprint of the soldiers themselves, then our combat rolls become, in part at least, morale rolls.

Now, combining the combat rolls and unit morale rolls is a good idea, and certainly speeds up the game. What it does not cover, however, is the sense of panic which can suddenly infect large bodies of people when something seems to go wrong. We see in the news that stampedes and such like are all to frequent in the world, often fatally, when crowds become stressed, often with fatal results to some people.

The Polemos rules I’ve been involved in try to model this using an ‘army morale’ method. What this is trying to get at is the overall ‘feeling’ of the army. Are things going well, OK, or badly? Is it time to run away yet, or will just one more push see us looting the enemy camp?

It is often said, (I think Napoleon said it, so it must be true) that morale to the physical is three to one. What is true, or seems to be, is that the number of casualties actually in combat was relatively low.

It used to be quite fashionable to ignore reports that, say, Montrose’s men had suffered only a single fatality while the enemy had suffered hundreds. More recent historical work, started by Charles Coulson in ‘Going to the Wars’, suggests that the reports are quite accurate. The majority of casualties were caused during the rout of the enemy forces; actual, face to face combat, caused comparatively few.

Of course, applying this idea to ancient (or any other period) rules is generalising wildly, but it would seem that the threat of injury or death is more potent in persuading a soldier to run away or fight on is more potent than the reality of people dying around them. This may not be true in modern warfare with its much longer ranges, of course, but I suspect that it might be so up to, say, the nineteenth century.

So, morale would seem to be one of those primadonna concepts in wargaming, that we do need to try to model in rules, but struggle to find an articulation of in them. It would probably stand further analysis than I’ve managed here, so it might get returned to sometime in the future.


  1. I think the purpose of replicating the affects of loss of morale (at least in my own WW2 rules) is to prevent the player abusing his position with his god-like overview of at least one side of the battle (or both for the solo player).
    The player may know that the enemy attack is actually on its last legs but without a morale reaction to force his hand, would he make his defenders fall back for the sake of realism?
    As for morale tests slowing the game down, all rules are built on some sort of sliding scale, realism vs playability. You take your choice and pay your money-or write your own rules with what is the correct balance for the game you want to play.

    1. So are morale rules a construct of the game or do they reflect some insubstantial quality of the troops? I suppose it is a bit of both, but morale as construed in most rules I've seen is not the morale that I read about in battle reports.

      The mechanics have to vary from a model of reality to make something intelligible and tractable. But then how realistic are the rules we have? And how playable.

      As you say, it is all a balance.