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Monday, 6 November 2017

Set unit sizes in wargames rules

One of the things in "modern" wargaming that really sets my teeth on edge is the use of set and immutable unit sizes. For me an otherwise decent set of rules such as Honours of War or Maurice is totally ruined by the use of the same unit sizes for all nationalities.
 Now the two sets I have mentioned are by no means the only ones or even the worst offender(That prize goes as with most things to DBR)  indeed any set of rules which enforces a set organisation upon the player will get my back up. Now as it happens I like both Maurice and Honours of war and- certainly with the latter if I can work out how to solve the problem of the set unit sizes the rules will rise further in my estimation.
 If you take even a cursory look at any campaign you quickly see that unit strengths in any give army vary widely and that between armies and nationalities the variation is even wider. So why do so many  of today's "game designers" cop out and impose a set organisation upon the players?. Equally why do so many players accept it. Well that one is easy because its FunFunFun and  please don't ask us to know anything about what we are doing because knowing stuff isn't funfunfun . Of course it may be even more funfunfun if the organisations are completely fictitious and bear no resemblance to reality.(DBR again and of course Pikemans Lament ) Never forgetting for one moment that the funsters only allow their kind of funfunfun  to be any fun at all- and who appointed them the Fun Police anyway?

 So if knowing your military history- even a little bit- isn't fun then why bother to be a WAR gamer at all. There are plenty of games that do not require any kind of knowledge, that are equally as absorbing (so I'm told).
Without the history and knowledge I couldn't be bothered with the actual gaming. It would have no real point of itself and I'm sure I could find another reason to meet my mates down the pub.

However back to the plot.
 Set unit sizes - or rather rules which force set unis sizes are only a gaming convenience. A lazy way of organising rules for the convenience of the game designer and in theory the convenience of the gamer who then- obeying the diktats of the game won't need to sully his mind with anything as difficult as actually knowing about the period he is playing.
 Now there are plenty of rule sets which don't force unit sizes upon you.My favourite commercial ECW set -Forlorn Hope- doesn't. WRG didn't. The Classics didn't really- though Grant came close but you could get round his unit sizes easily as the rules were figure driven WHAB didn't or its offshoots. Young didn't- though his suggested units sort of did the rules were not dependent upon the unit sizes  to actually function and that is the nub of my distaste for set unit sizes.  If the set unit size is and worse- the points system are part of how the combat and morale mechanisms function then - at least to me- it is pretty obvious that the game designer has not read up on his period- or if he has he then decides to chuck all of that out in favour of his favourite(this week) "game mechanism" . Now this may not matter if you are making a fantasy game of a sci-fi game or a game of zombie  vampire cowboy nazis or whatever adolescent bandwaggon you are jumping on this afternoon but it should matter if you are  writing any set of rules which purports to depict an historical period.

As I write it occurs- not for the first time- that there may be a widening distinction between the "game designer" and the rules writer. Their objectives may be very different. A rules writer may actually want to reflect the historical period in his rules for wargaming the military actions of that period.  A game designer may simply want to make  what he considers to be a "good game"- whatever that might be. Now if the 2 differing sets of criteria overlap all well and good  you may - just may get a good game that reflects its chosen period or part of it. Many "games" these days are significantly more limited in scope than say Forlorn Hope or Tactica  or WRG  or even Black Powder . But of course to actually mention this to the Fun Police brings down coals of fire upon any who do not want lightweight adolescent amusement ALL the time (instead of just some of the time) and whose idea of fun  may be different from another zombie dice rolling contest.

The set unit size is of course only a symptom of limited game disease and convenience wargaming and in themselves there is nothing actually wrong with either but if that is all that is left when the Fun Police have finished..... Fortunately at the moment there are still enough blokes out there who have their own idea of fun.


  1. It sometimes seems that all of society has become about, as you say, "lightweight adolescent amusement." Sobering and terribly sad.

    Best Regards,


  2. I think you should make a distinction between 2 things: the "unit size" measured in number of figures or physical footprint; and the rules governing these units.

    I have no problems if units for different armies in the same period have the same number of figures or occupy the same footprint on the table (within reason ...). It makes for a cleaner and better design.

    That does not mean you cannot differentiate in the behaviour and effectiveness of these units. Units from nation 1 can still be better shots than units from nation 2, even though both are represented by an identical number of figures.

    The problem really arises when you have identical number of figures, but then go on to have rules that are figure-based rather than unit-based. Those two concepts do not match very easily.

    For me, I don't care that much what difference in the figure count is per unit, and don't care that much about differences in physical footprint (within reason, of course). Of course, if one nation would have battalions which were twice are large and occupied double the area, then it would not be a good representation.

    1. Phil see your point and even sort of agree but even in the same army unit sizes could vary wildly- and therefore in gaming terms would have a different footprint as units so for the British siege of Belle-Isle in 1761 the strongest unit- the 30th Foot had 780 effectives the weakest 2nd/76th only 460. unit based rules would give them the same footprint whereas - for example at a 1-20 ratio the stronger would be 39 figs the weaker a mere 23 so the footprint would be 40% shorter on the table. Obviously this is only one of many examples and is only 1 comparatively small expeditionary force but for me shows the weakness of set unit sizes.

    2. Don;t get me wrong, I agree with the notion that a significantly smaller unit should not have the same "power" as a larger unit. Whether that translates into a different visual representation on the gaming table is a somewhat different discussion. To me, that only makes sense if you work with a well-defined ground-scale, and the rules also revolve around this ground-scale. Moreover, the unit-size should have played a significant role in the decisions made by the commanders of the time. If the only resulting factor would have been that combat resolution was altered due to the deployment of a larger unit here rather than there, then you can factor that in in die modifiers or something similar.

    3. Ah the vexing question of groudscale again I don't disagree but for me groudscale should be relative rather than precise. Its is not about hte actual no of inches to the mile so much as the relative "enagementranges" of the weapons as against the speed of movement so if your weapon ranges are too short relative to speed of movement then the whole relationship can be trhown out. Of course that relationship will be different for each different historical period.... Its a bugger really!!

    4. Well Said Phil. I think it is about Unit effectiveness, not unit size.

      For example, if unit is half the size of a typical battalion, but twice as effective [elite...veteran...grenadier...well-fed...extra rum ration...whatever] and it deploys on the same frontage historically, then - it doesn't matter. And frontage is what a lot of generals wanted. Frederick wanted battalions that took up what he considered a battalion frontage. So if they didn't deploy 3 ranks deep, but more like 2 ranks, he didn't care as long as they took up the frontage needed. One can almost imagine them being paid by the linear yard of frontage that they occupied!

      In any event, there are many many reasons to have standard sized units. For one thing, it is historically a reality that many units had widely varied sizes in their history. Does that mean I have to buy the miniatures to represent a full-strength unit having left the Home Country for "back of beyond", then decrease it for random events over time? Of course not.

      So I think most of us build units around some sort of game convenience, or historical battle / reality, and then call it a day.

      If that means my Irish Brigade units are always small, and the green Massachussetts unit is always big, fine. Or I can decrease the MA unit to match history, etc.

      Bottom line, units varied so wildly by strength, it is almost entirely impossible to always have the correct size, unless you always have figures you don't use.

      So, we can settle for varied strengths, sure. But at the end of the day, combat effectiveness is the only thing that really matters. So if I have half as many veterens who fight as well as double the number of conscripts, then the only difference is frontage.

      It's easier to just give a bonus to the better unit, and a penalty to the bigger, weaker unit. But even then, frontage often ends up nearly similar by brigade as Division and Corps commanders expect the brigade to take up a certain frontage on the field.

      So the historical reality matches the game mechanic...a certain frontage, for a certain combat quality.

      What's not to like??

    5. As I said my beef is not with set unit sizes per se but with those rules that FORCE set unti sizes on you as part of their mechanic- so that is why for me DBA/R/M and pikemans lament fail. There are time when set unti sizes are appropriate and times when they are not. Slaving everything in a limited game to mere game convenience is not always the way to go

  3. It has to be said I think that the quality of convenience is too easily underrated. It can equally easily be overrated, and all. In developing my own armies I tend towards equally sized units, but I don't make a fetish of it. Most of my (home grown) rule sets cater cope quite well with disparate unit sizes. Probably the best instance of that was the battle I wrote up about 5 years ago between an army with 19-figure battalions and their enemy with one 36-figure regiment, one of 32 and a couple of 9-figure companies.
    In fighting campaigns, one's establishments will generally take a knock, here and there.

    Having said that, if you are playing games at a higher command level, then you building block units or elements are going to look more equal, quantitatively, at least. DBR is such a rule set, in my view. I see nothing in that rule set (unless it has changed dramatically since I last saw a copy or a game) that stops you creating units comprising disparate numbers of elements. Another element based system, Fire & Fury pretty much dictates that units (brigades, generally) DO vary in size, and quite widely. That variation is built into the army list for any given battle. In DBR there is no formal units or formations at all apart from what are commanded by whom and where.

    I can understand your beef, and where the diktat is for units of size 'x', adapting the game system into refighting an actual historical battle can prove a real chore. Although one starts off trying to shoe horn your game system into an historical mould, one often finds oneself trying to wrap history around the game system.

  4. Ion Of course the problem with DBR is that there is no unit structure at all - and this for a period where such is becoming important again.
    The point of higher command levels is well made and for smaller scales and for me therefore higher command levels I'd agree that a bit of convenience does kick in but DBR for example really does not work there either as there is no impression of higher command- or indeed any command at all . At the other end of the scale Lament does not function well in that regard either as the command level can't make its mind up weather the player commands an outpost or piquet or a mixed all arms force that is basically a sort of miniaturized army corps- which did not exist in the 17th century.
    PL actually reads more like a computer game than anything else.

  5. Interesting post, thank you. I entirely agree with you about the need for historical knowledge and the sad current dominance of 'game design'.
    I'd hazard a guess, though, that unit size matters less as the armies get bigger. If you are playing the part of 'Napoleon' maybe you don't need to know the size of each battalion, you just know that Division commander X has whatever number of battalions and he reports that they are in good shape, so you'll order them into to the attack rather than Division Commander Y, who has less battalions and they need to be rested. You therefore order X to 'take that village', and leave the details up to him. So maybe 'big battle' rules don't need to worry so much about differentiating the sizes of units? Whereas maybe if you are Prince Rupert or Waller, and you have only a few thousand men, you know and care much more about the number and strength of your regiments, and you might take personal charge of one of them to lead that attack ( which makes realistic unit organisation in small-scale rules like Pikeman's Lament even more important, I agree! ). And btw, my 1980s copy of 'Forlorn Hope' is a treasured possession!

    1. David Precisely. If I'm Boney- perish the thought mind- then I don't care about the 120th line so in larger battles- usually at the smaller scales precise individual unit structure is of less importance. But when that "idea" is carried down to smaller hopefully more detailed engagements then there is a problem.
      For a "Big Battle set of rules I still like "Volley and Bayonet" which had the essence of large actions and divisional and upwards command. Units are stylised but the system works- we played a lot of large FPW battles back in the day and some Napoleonic.
      For my money the otherwise lacklustre "Black Powder" works best at the smaller scales higher levels- though it is still far from perfect.
      At lower levels of command-"battalion/regiment" or even company I like more detail and less blandness so that is where more accurate and precise unit strengths come in.

  6. What is the point of playing any type of game, listening to music, watching a movie, going on a vacation, etc. if it isn't fun? If something isn't fun, ergo it brings no enjoyment to me, then I probably won't willingly do it.

    And who are these Fun Police that you keep referring to?

    I host a lot of participation wargames at conventions where the players have a limited amount of time to invest in my game so I have to use an easy to learn set of rules so that the players can pitch into it right away.

    I don't like complicated rules in this setting for several reasons: if the players don't have fun playing in my game then they won't play in my convention games in the future; I don't want any player to lose a game or get his forces destroyed simply because he could understand the rules in a short amount of time; likewise I don't want other player to have a game advantage because they know the rules better than the poor fellow who doesn't. ( my thinking will forever be colored by my first game playing In The Grand Manner rules, and watching a whole Corps of 16 battalions run off the table because I wasn't familiar with the rules).

    I like to have funfunfun when I Wargame, but I'm not going to cram my rules or my point of view on anyone else. If they don't like my game then that's ok. They can elect to play in somebody else's game and my feelings won't be hurt.


    1. Jim - my argument here rests on differing definitions of funfufun . The definition should change depending upon the situation and the players but frequently does not seem to do so. One mans fun is another's torture and the FUN POLICE are those chaps who keep telling us that it all must be fun without any brain work whatsoever and if you must use your brains or have any knowledge then it must not - by their definition- be fun. A good number of these fellows seem to be game designers.
      Contrarywise For me a game that does not have at least a reflection of its chosen period in it , that does not have any of its period military art in it does not automatically get to be fun however simple it may be or however many dice you get to throw.This is why Cold War Commander and Pikemans Lament do not cut the mustard to name but 2 .
      Surely "fun" is a moveable feast and not merely candyfloss.

  7. You know Andy, I think the real fun-killers in my gaming world are people who value charts and modifiers more than history, decisions, command role, and excitement. Can't say how many games I watch are a bunch of guys looking at charts, about as much fun as watching people at the library.

    So I think there's a balance needed of history, tactics, decisions that affect outcome, and a bit of variables but not that much - if I can't memorize them in one game, I can't be bothered. Scenario-specific rules are fine, but the core rules should be read at a glance and played once for overall comprehension. After that, it should be 80% tactics and if I know the period well I should have an advantage in "getting" the rules.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post!

    1. Catching up after the holiday means I have just seen this. Charts and modifiers may have their place(sometimes the bin)v but in our group that tends to be the Umpires problem after all he is running the game. Command decisions are for the players.