A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Morale – Now I Remember

I thought I should write this while I still feel the need to do so. It’s amazing how you forget. Yesterday, I blithely set about playing out a small cavalry skirmish for the ECW campaign (previous post, if you can be bothered), and felt that, since the game was too small and fiddly for my usual Commands & Colors style rules, I should get back to some proper, old-fashioned wargaming, and use more traditional rules, such as I knew and loved when I was young and enthusiastic. I was rather looking forward to it.

I didn’t go into this completely blind – I decided to use a derivative of Victory without Quarter, which I have used before for larger ECW actions – including a very large one at Old John’s HQ two years ago. Fine. As I recall, apart from a couple of gaps in the rules (which the derivative is intended to fix), the games went OK.


I got a bit of a shock yesterday – I mean, the game was OK, but the very small scale of the action threw up an effect which I didn’t expect – or, at least, if I should have expected it then I’d forgotten what wargames used to be like.

The rules I used were a wholehearted effort to do things the old way – put the boards with the non-hex side up, dig out the measuring tape, have the QRS tables taped up on the dresser to keep things grooving along. I didn’t have a bounce stick for roundshot, but it would have felt even better if I had. The action involved a grand total of seven units, with two generals, and I was very happy to measure out march distances, divide the last three inches by two because that was a rough patch of ground, take a full move to deploy from march column into line, measure the outer-edge travel of a line wheeling, all that good stuff. There was a lot of manoeuvring and measuring and moving about, which was fun, and there were two cavalry melees, in quick succession. Then, it seemed, there were about thirty morale tests, which must have taken 80% of the total brain effort and about half the elapsed time.

Holy smoke. The tests in this game require 2D6 to be supplemented by various plus and minus factors, and you pass by totalling 7 or more. You fail by getting 4 to 6. You fail disastrously (and have to go away, quickly) if you get less than 4. Some of the plus/minus factors are constant givens for a unit (level of training, quality etc) some change slowly as the action progresses (increasing losses, past upsets) and some are transients based on current situation (proximity of friends, command, cover, enemy etc). It is a pretty standard, traditional approach to morale. Though it is not complicated, and you can remember a lot of it without reference to the sheet, there is a fair sized list to check against. Every time.


No real surprises here – those of us who learned our wargaming from Messrs Featherstone, Wesencraft, Tunstill and Co would expect a wargame to be like this. It was, if I remember correctly, a point of pride amongst us that this particular clever bit of the game made it more scientific than (for example) Snakes & Ladders. I can remember explaining to my mother that the game wasn’t just bang-bang (such a game would be childish, of course), but the morale mechanisms actually gave the little men a say in what happened, and the challenge for the general was coping with the frustrations which the rules and the dice (and therefore Fate, of course – we were in distinguished company here) handed out. Well, I’m sorry, Mum, but I’m not so enthusiastic now – perhaps I should have cut my teeth on Young and Lawford instead – it might well have given me a more pragmatic education in these matters.

Here’s an example from yesterday. Two cavalry units – both rather shaky – face up to each other on a hillside in Northern England in 1644. Let us call them A and B.

A get within charge range of B, and declare a charge – good for them.

First have to check their morale, to see if they are up for it. Yes, they pass. Charge.

Unit B wish to countercharge – have to check morale. They pass, but in the event the chargers are too close, so B receive the charge at the halt.

The first round of melee takes place, in addition to everything else, A are uphill of B, so the melee is a bit one-sided. B take heavier loss, are shaken and pushed two inches down the slope. They have to have their morale tested  to see if they rout – no, they hold their ground, albeit shaken.

In the next turn, the general in charge of B is lucky enough to get the initiative, so his first order is to rally the shaken unit B. This obviously requires a morale test. They pass, rather surprisingly, so they straighten out their line and wait to be charged again.

A’s turn. A are ordered to charge again – since unit B are now rallied and steady again, A need a morale test – they pass, and charge.

There is no question of a countercharge, the newly-rallied B receive the charge at the halt, and take many casualties – they lose the melee, so – that’s right – they must test morale. They fail – they collapse, and rout 3D6 inches immediately.

Right. A’s commander does not wish them to pursue, so he attempts to hold them by means of – you guessed it – a morale test. They fail, so they pursue, out of control, a distance of 3D6 (which, as it happens, is less than the other lot’s 3D6, so they do not catch them).

From this point, the respective commanders can each look forward to a morale test for A and B every turn until they rally. In yesterday’s action, the routers (B) passed very close to a friendly unit (C), who thus required a morale test to see how they reacted to this. They failed – they were shaken, and thus not able to take orders from the commander.

Round about the same moment, the uncontrolled pursuit brought A face to face with C (who couldn’t have attacked them anyway, but A did not know this), and A had to take a morale test to see how they reacted. They got double 1, which is a bit extreme, and thus they not only stopped their wild pursuit but did an about-face and routed back the way they had come. There were now 3 units who would require a morale test each turn to try to rally them.

Enough of this – you get the idea. Whatever else happened was almost incidental compared with this relentless industry of morale. Obviously I survived the experience, but the tiny action had served to highlight the disproportionate effort which goes into these tests in this style of game.

I had forgotten. I remember now. I don’t really want to do this again – not like this. Commands and Colors just hands out retreats as part of the loose change on the Battle Dice – easy peasy. It’s surprising how quickly you get used to that, though it might not suit everyone. I had a think about what else I used to do – there was life before C&C, and it wasn’t all as wretched as yesterday, so what else was there?

Well, 4 years ago I was using in-house Napoleonic rules which owed a lot to many sources, but particularly to Doc Monaghan’s The Big Battalions – I especially liked his inclusion of musketry volley fire into melees, which made a lot of sense and simplified a lot of things, and I liked the approach to melees themselves, which virtually eliminated all the morale testing around that area.

In TBB, each side has an effectiveness score based on type, nationality and formation, with additions/subtractions for context; add 1D6 for each side, and subtract the defender’s total from the attacker’s. The table of results takes care of all the morale testing at a stroke. You can just get on with your charge…

I quote from TBB – this table gives net results and what they mean:

+5        Defender routed before contact
+3,+4  Defender routed
+1,+2  Defender retreats
0          Violent Struggle takes place
-1,-2    Attacker retreats
-3,-4    Attacker routed
-5         Attacker routed before contact
-6         Attacker refused to advance

Then there are instructions for how many casualties apply to victorious, defeated and routing units, and how to conduct the retreats. Oh yes, a Violent Struggle means that both sides suffer heavy casualties, as though they had been defeated.


Well, the game still contains a lot of detailed rules, but – to me – that seems a more sensible – not to say humane – way to cope with the morale implications of a melee. For future detailed, tactical games, I shall try to find rules which are more like The Big Battalions.

That is, of course, provided I have not forgotten again.


  1. Often it seems that regardless of factors the traditional morale test just comes down to the die roll. In my ACW rules a 1 or 2 on an unmodified D6 is a morale failure and game plays very well. Of course I have to have a more complicated system for the Hinton Hunts as it wouldn't be old school if I didn't!!!

    1. A lot of older rule sets (and I don't mean yours unless you insist!) were developed bottom up from basic principles - "first they would do this, and then this would happen, and then you have to see if they are able to carry on, and then you have to check if they loaded the muskets correctly, and then..." - often that will simplify to one big factor which covers a pile of stuff without worrying about minutiae - wargames are traditionally packed with minutiae - exactly which figures are casualties - exactly how much further can a rifle fire than a musket etc etc. The longer I spend with this, the more I think the simpler the better. The general does not give the order for the 97th Foot to form line from column, nor does he personally order out the voltigeurs - to the general, these things just happen by themselves - his focus is on the big stuff.

      Inherited problem, I think, is that it's fun to do the detail stuff sometimes, so it gets kept in the game even if it's not appropriate. i spent years trying to get skirmishers to work smoothly in a miniatures game, simply because I liked the idea - it is a lot of fiddling about for not much effect if you aren't careful - there are simpler approaches which work just as well. Well, I have just resigned from the Morale Throw Church - life is too short - I have better ways of spending my hobby time!

      Cheers - Happy New Year! - Tony

  2. Who was it that said "the price of fun is eternal vigilence? " and Merlin i believe who said "for it is the fate of men that they forget".

    Last year I had a sudden urge to look at wrg 3rd ed ancients again and was surprised at how much simpler and more sensible, natural and playable it was. Then I looked at the morale modifiers and put it away.

    I did actually enjoy the skirmish report though despite some head nodding and unhuhs.

    All the best for 2015

    1. Hi Ross - good New Year to you. It's very odd - when you read through the rules booklet I used you go through, saying, "yeah - yeah - that's OK - OK, that's straightforward..." and when I got to the morale (Section 8!) it just looked like a standard, no-brainer, traditional morale test. It didn't stick out as a potential death trap, though maybe I was naive, or not looking for the right things.

      On my personal checklist for rulesets as from now (and I have to own up that I don't try different rules often enough to have developed a methodology for this!) is an extra check: "OK, that seems simple enough, but how often will I have to do this?".

      I must have another read of Hearts of Tin - that is always one of my stand-by candidates, I've looked at it seriously, but I've never given it a proper try-out....

      Cheers - Tony

  3. Very entertaining topic, Tony. It would be quite funny if it did not hit so close to home. Like you, I am trying to reduce the number of modifiers in my games. A list is not so daunting if only a few are applicable at any one time. Another suggestion for these long modifier games is to roll the dice first. Then, the modifiers only need tallying if the result might be close.

    Napoleon, quoted as stating that "moral is to the physical as three to one," certainly did not envision morale resolution taking three times as long as shock resolution.

    As a young gamer, complexity was preferred to simplicity since I wrongfully figured that more complexity led to more realism. Little did I know then of the power of data reduction!


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