from The Military Institutions of the Romans (De Re Militari)
By Flavius Vegetius Renatus Translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John ClarkeV
Bluebear Jeff has asked my thoughts on the optimum number of units to deploy in a wargame. This has been on mind as I try to determine what size units to organize in some of the armies that I'm building. Since the table will be filled, the larger the units the fewer the number of units and vice versa.
There is of course no definitive, universal answer to the question and special circumstances often apply but we are talking in general terms of an average game. One might think that the answer can be found by looking at historical orders of battle, but really, that only changes the question to "What level of organization should my basic units reflect?, Squads? Platoons? Battalions? Brigades? Divisions?". Management theory about span of control and so forth can provide some guidance but there are military and game factors as well.
Based more upon my years of experience than any theory, I think that there is a good case to be made for an average of 12 units a side for ordinary games. Since one often needs unbalanced forces, let me expand that to say between 6 and 18 units per side. Oddly enough, this matches the typical force levels in C.S. Grant's table Top Teasers and Scenarios as well as DBA's 12 element armies amongst other things.
There are a couple of factors I like to keep in mind:
- Force Mix. This is more of an issue for some periods/armies than others but most (not all ) armies, from ancient Egyptians up to today, usually contained a majority of infantry units of various types, supported by artillery or other missile/support troops and cavalry/armour both heavy and light. Six units won't allow a natural mix of all unit types but is just barely enough to allow for a balanced force of 2 or 3 types.
- Deployment & Tactics. If you check back with Vegetius, one of my earliest (in every sense) tutors on tactics, he suggests various battle formations for an army to adopt. They all begin with a Left, a Center, a Right and a Reserve and usually end with weighting one or more parts of the formation. Units shouldn't really be left without supports if it can be avoided so if you allocate say, 2 units, to each sector and then weight one of them, you really need about 9 or 10 units, 12 would be better but 6 will do in a pinch. Any less and your deployment and tactical options are severely limited.
- Longevity and Options. Simply put, the fewer units you have, the easier it is to lose them all and the fewer choices you can make each turn. For me, making choices is a key part of the fun of wargames, as is the ability to take some lumps, haul yourself together and try again.
- Drag and Drudgery. This is the flip side. Decisions take time. If players have to make too many decisions the game will inevitably drag. Many units usually also mean many combat resolutions and many tests of one sort or another. How many is too many depends on the complexity of the rules, how well the players know them, the complexity of the scenario, whether or not units can be grouped, how much time and energy is available and what the players enjoy. My suggestion of 18 units is based on a wide variety of games over the years but I am comfortable adjusting it upwards for very simple games (rules or scenario) especially if the units can be grouped or if a longer more involved game than normal is involved.
- Storylines. One issue Jeff brought up is the ability to remember who is who and what they did so you can relive or share the battle afterwards. I recently bumped into this with my ACW plans when I realized that I was proposing to field 36 or more regiments a side when I couldn't even remember names and numbers for 12! Given my gaming preferences I would be better off either reorganizing to focus on brigades or fighting smaller battles with larger units if I want more troops on the table.
- Multi-player & Solo. These change things a little but I would suggest that the minimum for a multi-player game becomes 3 to 12 units per player. For Solo games, I wouldn't change anything as an average of 12 per side is still best for giving each army options.