Mary Russell

Designer John Theissen has designed several operational-level games for us: More Aggressive Attitudes, Objective Shreveport!, Hood's Last Gamble, Campaign of Nations, and Antony and Cleopatra. In this guest article, he touches on two features of his designs.

There are a few rule concepts that find their way into most of the games I’ve designed, and I’d like to talk about two of them here. The purpose of these rules is to provide models reflecting some historical effects while keeping the rules fairly simple. The goal here is to combine the gaming concepts of playability and realism, hopefully in an effective and acceptable way.


Looking from a historical point of view at what could happen in a combat, we can see that there are some possible effects that can result. An obvious effect is casualties that range across the spectrum. Another is the forcing of a combatant to retreat. Beyond these two things is another consideration, and that is the condition of one or both sides of a combat. The condition of a force that participated in combat can be significant and can affect the force’s ability to engage in combat for a time.

There are many historical reasons for a unit that engaged in combat to become disrupted. This is the term sometimes used in wargames and is the term I’ve used. I’ll go through and list a number of real world conditions that can contribute to a game unit being disrupted.

  • The actual formation of tactical units can become dispersed, scattered, and out of contact. This would make an attack with such forces difficult or impossible until reorganized.
  • The overall leader of a force can lose confidence if defeated in a battle, and this could limit the leader’s willingness to attack.
  • Troops can become demoralized after a defeat in battle. If their leaders recognize this, the leaders can understand that making an attack with such a force would be foolish.
  • Fatigue can result from battle, making attacks by an exhausted force impossible.
  • A battle can deplete a force’s supplies, making offensive action difficult.
  • Loss of horses, in a pre-twentieth century battle, can affect the ability to move artillery, supplies, and wagons, thus making attacks difficult.
  • Officer casualties require reorganization of the men under their control, and that takes time.
  • There can be a loss of supply wagons. These can be abandoned after a retreat, for example.

The above factors are in addition to casualties and the possibility of retreat. One or more of these factors can contribute to a unit being disrupted. This is seen historically, and it is how I have used a combat result called “disruption”.

The effect of disruption is to reduce a unit’s combat ability. A unit can attempt to recover from disruption. The length of time a unit is in this state depends on a number of factors, as well as the game’s scale of historical time per turn.

For a player, an effect of disrupted units is that the player can’t see units as being assured of unlimited combat ability even if they survive combat. Combat has risk to it, beyond casualties and retreat, and the above historic reasons can take their effect in the form of what we’re calling disruption.

Retreat Before Combat

While most wargames have a sequential order of play, the real world allows things to happen simultaneously. Constructing rules for games that allow players to do things at the same time would be difficult, so most rule sets put things in an ordered way. This generally works okay and gives acceptable results. There are things that can be done though that help reflect the real world better. Retreat before combat is one of these concepts.

If an ordered sequence of play is followed strictly, with no possibility of retreat before combat, a player whose turn it is can move adjacent to an enemy unit and attack it. If this always happens, then that would be inaccurate modeling in many situations. Historically there were innumerable situations where a force moves towards an enemy force, but the enemy force moves away, not wanting to participate in combat.

There are exceptions to the ability of a force to move away from an attacker, and looking at an operational level, these “surprise” type attacks must be taken into account when forming retreat before combat rules. The battles of Trenton (1776), Lutzen (1813), and Shiloh (1862), show an attacking army moving adjacent to a defender, to use wargame terms, and the defender not having an ability to choose to decline combat and retreat. These situations are rare however, and there are many more battles that never were, because one force declined combat.

Rules featuring retreat before combat in my American Civil War operational games, as well as Campaign of Nations, allow the interaction of movement and combat to reflect real world possibilities. The retreat before combat rule is fairly easy. If the defender doesn’t want to defend in a particular combat, a die is rolled to see if that combat takes place. The would-be defender may of course choose to accept combat, and no die roll is needed in that case.

Looking historically again, we can see that forces could avoid combat even when being chased, and that is wasn’t easy to bring an enemy to combat if that enemy didn’t want to participate.

Leave a Comment