EXERT FROM APPENDIX 1 from Don Featherstone's Battles With Model Soldiers
(The book that got me started.)

"Nothing in these pages is a dictate, no word says you must or you shall do it this way. On the contrary, the book sets out from the very beginning to stimulate the reader to think for himself, and to use what he has read merely as a foundation for efforts and ideas which reflect his own temperament and character. Only in this way will he obtain maximum satisfaction from the hobby of battling with model soldiers."

-Don Featherstone 1918 - 2013

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Of Casualties and Combat Resolution

This is not a new topic for me let alone for war gaming at large but a couple of things have come together just as I contemplate rules and game-style for my late 19thC Colonial games and made it important for me to revisit the topic.

No one doubts that men are killed and wounded in battle, that's sort of the point of shooting and stabbing  people but there is debate over what the relationship is between casualties and unit effectiveness and behaviour. I entered the hobby in the early '70's when the mainstream view can be summed up by saying  that in most current rules, combat results and morale were largely casualty driven, not entirely but largely. I  remember in the '80s, reseaching to try to determine just how many casualties it usually took to force a French column or a British line to retreat. Over time though, the more I read, both history and theory, new and old, and especially the more 1st person accounts I read, the less I believed in this approach. Unfortunately, at about the same time, I began discovering my inner "Toy Soldier guy". The catch then has been finding something that was simple, gave what I felt were reasonably historical results, for the right reasons but felt still felt sufficiently toys soliderish (whatever that is)  to satisfy as a game.

To greatly simply my view on combat results to a "sound byte" level, essentially, it now seems to me that while numbers are not irrelevant, and few units ever fight to the last man, combat across the last 3,000 years can be divided into two primary if vague categories: Non-decisive Shooting and Shock Attacks.

Essentially firepower, including skirmish fire and artillery, used at effective ranges can be used to weaken an opponent but not usually to over power him. If the enemy is well disciplined or well protected, he will generally be very resistant and even a prolonged drain of casualties will generally not significantly weaken the defence unless casualties are very high, in the order of 50% or more. An example might be one where infantry are caught up on wire and cut up by machine guns and shrapnel.  Shooting can, however, pin the enemy, occupy his attention or drive him to cover and can sometimes encourage his leaders to pull him back, often with a fatal collapse of discipline if the troops are poorly trained or demoralized.  We can see this in play from Cyrus's fight against the Saka where both sides shot their bows until the arrows ran out then closed to hand to hand, to contemporary warfare.

Shock Attacks on the other hand, almost always result in one side or the other being forced to retreat, often being done for the day.  Now, by attack, I don't necessarily mean fisticuffs. Sometimes it is fire power deployed with great effect from inside the enemy's comfort zone, like the British Guards at Fontenoy or an assault with grenades and flamethrowers on a bunker.

In all these cases, casualties are involved but it now seems to me that units don't seem to weaken in a linear fashion in direct relationship to the number of casualties. Its more like sawing a piece of wood, if you saw 1/2 way through, the wood still holds together and you still can't break it by hand, you need to apply almost as much force as when it was untouched. The sawing,obviously is the shooting, the pressure, the assault.

In wargame terms, you can capture some of this by OS methods of incremental casualties but it only really works well if you have large units that allow you to accumulate low numbers of casualties over a long period of time and don't allow odd morale test results to interfere unduly. When I first played DBA, I was somewhat put off by die/don't die combat results but I'm slowly coming to think that they are more right than wrong, even if I don't desire to copy the methods. Morschauser actually captured this  divide fairly well, especially if using the roster system.  The fire combat is still a bit too deadly perhaps  but it can be a slow and unpredictable business trying to defeat an enemy by fire. An assault on the other hand (3" melee range) is deadly as it continues immediately until 1 side or the other is eliminated, a little too harsh  perhaps.

All of this went into Hearts of Tin and MacDuff so why bring it up again? Simply put, for some reason,  I was expecting the Boer War to be different! However, after reading Rietz's memoirs and dipping back into some other books I haven't read in a while, it all still seems to apply. That's why even in the 3rd year of the war you could still find the Boers making mounted charges on British camps or foot assaults on defended positions. (I was beginning to think that these sorts of things were dreamt up by the illustrators!) They dind't happen often because the Boer's weren't often interested in taking a position away from the British, but when they needed supplies or their escape route was blocked, sometimes there was no choice and crack shots or not, there was only one way to take the British out, an attack.

Some other interesting tidbits picked up were that effective rifle fire often began at ranges where Rietz felt that aimed fire was impossible, distances like 500 or 800 yards.  So much for Boers picking flies off a Brit's nose at 1,000 yards. He also noted that many of the British shot fairly well themselves. It was only at quite close ranges  that the real Veldt Boers became so much more deadly. But even here it was more a matter of pinning and killing/wounding a few men than of breaking units. British artillery fire could occasionally dislodge the Boers if they felt like there was nothing to gain by taking the casualties but the only thing that could dislodge them if they felt they needed to hold the ground, was a bayonet charge from close range..

The same concepts seem to also apply against more "savage" enemies, Pathans and so on,  the constant sniping took its toll but it still needed a charge with Cold Steel to clinch the matter for one side or the other.

So, turning to my Colonial games, my vague plan was to use small units of single figures being treated as individuals for the spirit of it but  any system that inflicts casualties and then uses that to establish a units fighting ability, is not going to feel right, especially when each hit is a 10% or even 25% casualty rate.  I contemplated switching to a 1 base=1 unit system with fire usually giving pin or retire results, and close combats giving a destroyed or repulsed result, but, that's not the game I was intending to play.

So I need to find away using the toy soldiers to have fire have an effect, possibly cumulative, without it killing a lot of guys. Movement should be long unless interrupted by being shot at.  Fire against close order targets should cause casualties, against skirmishers and troops in cover, it should tend to pin rather than kill except at very,very close ranges or if by some sorts of artillery in some sorts of terrain. The decisive charge should be able to fall back on the traditional figure vs figure roll off melee, if the charge get home.
Any idea of constant scale is out the window. To fit the typical sort of small action onto my table, I would need a ground scale of around 1"=100 yards. Each of my figures would then represent around 100 men. That's battalions in battle, not a few companies in a skirmish. Time is also an issue, the important bits happen quickly but desultory exchanges of fire  can last hours. I think its time to adopt the time, distance and troop scale concepts from Charge! again.

It all needs more thought and some putzing about on table, but first I need suitable troops to putz with!.


  1. Hi Ross,

    Very thought provoking and for me the most telling comment was the firepower/shock comparison. Ironically the 'threat' of shock caused more unit disruption than the end result in terms of casualties although obviously with exceptions.

    Reminds me of the oft used comment about bayonet wounds being a small percentage of casualties inflicted, again with exceptions.

    All the best,


    1. Thanks DC. I've also read comments to the effect that bayonet stabs tended to be lethal and thus were not treated in hospital. Apparently no one ever thought to go through the bodies categorizing cause of death. None the less over all I'm sure artillery and small arms killed and wound more men but some one still has to "take the ground"


  2. I presume that you are thinking ala Macduff rather than HoT . . . in other words, individually based figures.

    Nicely framed dilemma, Ross. A good issue to think about.

    -- Jeff

  3. Ross Mac,

    This is a dilemma that any wargames rules writer faces … and like most people I have yet to find a perfect answer. I like to remove figures as a simple way to record casualties … but it is not always practical nor does it conceal the ‘damage’ a unit may have suffered. One alternative is to use a hidden strength marker (it is very like Morschauser’s Roster System except that the Unit ‘carries’ it with them around the tabletop battlefield) … but it also has its drawbacks as players need to remember to change the marker if and when the Unit suffers casualties. A further alternative is the ‘here or gone’ method, whereby a Unit is either here – and fighting at full strength – or gone for good (this is used in the DBA/HOTT rules).

    I have read of an alternative system that was developed in the 1880s(!) whereby the Unit stays at full strength (in terms of figures) on the tabletop battlefield BUT leaves casualty figures behind it as it moves. A Unit has a finite number of casualties (these are stored off-table) after which it is destroyed. The only major problem is the number of casualty figures players need to use the rules.

    Not answer for you … but a few suggestions to throw into the melting pot!

    All the best,


    1. Thanks Bob. Interesting to hear how old that system is. I played in an Alamo game about 6 years ago that used that system, the GM had a bag full of 2d printed Mexican casualties equal to 50% of the historical Mexican army. If the bag ran empty before the Alamo fell then the Mexicans lost!