Wargame Wednesday: Manpower and Annihilation

Wednesday , 30, January 2019 6 Comments

Pyrrhus – minor victory winner on the board, major loss in the campaign game.

War does not determine who is right but who is left. In many wargames we do not bother about the consequences of success or failure, but it is precisely that vital question and the degree thereof that sponsors the dedication and pleasure of the experience. In wargames we typically balance the experience to begin from an even footing, and often have mirrored objectives and starting positions to further emphasize that the better commander ought win.

Reality is very different. I propose to you that many scenarios and campaigns are designed superficially as far as objectives are concerned. Once more, specific battles such as Waterloo are often better than the more flexible systems, which strikes me as odd. Why is a more flexible and generic system worse at dealing with objectives and context?

A typical system looks like this: Campaign battle 1 is an even footing, vanilla affair, then the winner gets to go on offense, getting favorable footing or an advantage in the next battle. This process continues down the victory/defeat matrix with relatively few options for interesting objective play. Other important factors like ammunition and medical supplies, food, petrol, scouting, and the like are rarely considered—in a campaign setting! How many battles were determined by availability of simple material? What about a nation’s exhaustion from prolonged or brutal war and the lack of manpower? Slaughters were generally accepted in antiquity, and thus annihilation was the expected outcome either in culture or as a whole.

Pyrrhus was an ambitious Greek, and when he decided to aid Tarentum ca. 280 BC he fought a war in which he won battles but lost in the end. He was fighting in Roman territory and could not replenish his specialized and highly-trained forces easily. Ultimately, it was the raiding of his camp at the tail end of the battle of Asculum by Roman-allied tribes that produced his famous declaration: “Another such victory, and we shall be undone.” While on a tabletop, Pyrrhus would have received a minor victory over his foe, in a campaign scenario he was undone, his goal of forcing a Roman surrender or deal was put beyond his grasp. In tactical defeat, the Romans managed to completely remove campaign victory from the table.

Another good example of a victorious campaign that had disastrous consequences was the Soviet victory in World War Two. They were victorious, but lost an estimated 18-31 million people, about a third of all civilian deaths and almost half of all military casualties in the entire war. Their country’s population dropped by about 15 percent, and that is without taking into account the estimated 20 million babies not born due to the disruption of life during the war! These losses made it impossible for the nation to capitalize on its wartime gains, receding vulnerably back into a prickly, defensive mindset of hair-trigger threats that was the Cold War.

There are several wargames which do reflect individual factions’ special conditions in the larger world: the Necron faction in Warhammer 40,000’s tabletop game had (and may still have, they got a new rule book since my last game) a special rule where if their core troops were depleted below a certain point the army withdrew entirely—an instant loss based on campaign goals that dramatically affected how you and your enemies played out the conflict. Trade offs like this, where a side or faction gets both a benefit and a vulnerability or extra concern, are the heart of campaign interests and ultimately, the reason we approach individual battles in the real world. The US forces strategic success of cutting off Axis oil supplies is a great example; a wargame might easily give Axis tanks a slight edge, but also a campaign vulnerability. Generically, you might spend some requisition on a supply depot or command tent to give your forces bonuses, but they must be placed onto the battle map as a target of opportunity for your opponent to take advantage of. We could go even further, with each faction having specific lists of options built in for these trade offs, or even to reflect a faction’s general mentality in a conflict like an aggressor needing to occupy and pacify completely versus a defender needing to not lose as much as possible. One scenario I touch on in this past article.

Are you happy with having to move your troops up to capture a flag or zone, or the carnage of total annihilation as the primary objectives?

Do you think future wargames would benefit from more robust objective design, or is it better to focus on soldiery and their options?

Do you know of any wargames which have a wide selection of scenarios or objectives beyond business as usual that you can recommend?

Comment below, we love to hear your input.


  • Terry says:

    Later versions of the La Bataille series, and some other war games, take this into account by assigning different values to losses from different units, e.g., a Guard strength point loss is worth three points, a cavalry loss two, a poor, bloody infantry one, and militia one-half. This can discourage the player from committing especially valuable forces too early or in areas of extreme risk of losses.
    I actually prefer games that assign territorial objectives. This enables the game to be driven to a more historical outcome, as well as potentially providing greater balance, e.g. you can kill much more of the enemy (because you have more powerful/larger forces), but with the right strategy the other side can still win.

    • Zac says:

      Increased point loss for veterancy is an amazingly straightforward way to approach this problem. Very elegant, thanks for pointing this out to me!
      Territorial objectives are stellar because armoes often fight over specific terrain or ownership of a town or position, but they are harder for the flexible agnostic wargame because the system design often stops at the battlefield while terrain objectives require a larger context, and usually one side begins with control while the other must take it. Perhaps someday soon I will put my money where my mouth is and stop criticizing others’ designs to make my own, but it is not this day.

  • Clark says:

    The way ASL handles the factors mentioned is unique among games. Here are 4 examples:

    1. Leaders. For Germany, early/mid war leaders are more often a positive influence on the troops. Late war scenarios the leaders range from neutral to negative. For the Americans/Soviets, the opposite is true.

    2. Morale. Infantry units morale, which affects many aspects of play, tends to be higher/lower depending on the timeframe of the scenario. Reflects the troop quality, overall morale, etc. as the war went on.

    3. Ammo Depletion. Represents the degradation of a unit’s effectiveness due to supply shortages. This may be due to the timeframe of the scenario, or from being isolated from supplies (a scenario condition).

    4. Vehicle Breakdown. This concept is used to represent changes in fuel or ammo supplies over time.

    There are more ways ASL tries to represent the positive/negative affects the author mentions.

    So, I agree with the author. Playing a scenario when your side is “suffering” from some/all of the above can have profound affects on game-play.

    The frustration you feel when your only tank runs out of ammo is a faint shadow of how guys during a fight really feel after firing their last round.

    This dimension of “feelings” is missing from most wargames.

    Great article. Thank you.

    • Zac says:

      Appreciate it. Thanks for pointing out the emotional angle of this resource management discussion—that has often been one of the differences between old and young commanders, historically. From “Arms and the Man” to Caesar himself entering the fray before the defeat of Vercingatorix (forgive the spelling) the emotional and heartbreaking element are well known. “War is Kind” and “The General” and so many art pieces of all varieties are dedicated to the pang of failure from loss of life or other needful material. Like “The Red Badge of Courage” where the protagonist confronts the roaring dragon of death, it is precisely in the practicing of war that we must teach this confrontation and calculus where even lives are spent by those in charge as readily as a soldier would spend a bullet at his enemy.

  • Skyler_the_Weird says:

    I often wonder about Napoleon winning Waterloo but so depleting his elite forces that he’d have nothing left for the Austrian, Russian, and Swedish armies approaching the Rhine.

    • Scott Cole says:

      From David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon:
      “The defeat of the Anglo-Dutch army would almost certainly be followed by a pro-French revolution in Belgium – providing a useful source of recruits..”.
      Also England may have been knocked out of the war with a collapse of the government and “any Whig government more prone to make peace”.

      Nothing I ever looked into and maybe a subject of a future WW post but my thought is that the greater percentage of losses during a Napoleonic Era campaign (in this case the 100 Days Campaign and counting in case of a French victory at Waterloo) was made up of stragglers, deserters, the sick, and lightly wounded.

      The French could expect some of their losses to return to the ranks and now Napoleon could concentrate on the threat approaching from the east.

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