Saturday, 7 November 2009

Reserves in Games

Let's be blunt, one of the reasons people don't use reserve forces when playing wargames is that they can't see the benefits of doing so. Often the rules of the game don't actually allow reserve formations to work as they do in real life. More often than not, any player who does keep a reserve back suffers because his or her opponent will be able to concentrate more of their force against them.

I can quote figures for forming a reserve, and know that they helped to win battles, but it doesn't give me a real understanding about the subject.

For a start most of what's written about wars have a number of assumptions made about the general knowledge of the reader. Hence studying historical texts produces someone who is well read, but usually with no real appreciation of the practicalities of the problems involved. We can see this manifested in many different forms, which produces people whose knowledge is largely irrelevant to the real life experience, myself included.

Given that BattleTech is a science fiction game, for me, the immediate question that sprung to my mind is how are reserves deployed in real life?

I would say that I am woefully ignorant on the use of reserve forces in real warfare, since I have what I can only describe, on reflection, as a facile understanding of the topic from reading about the subject. I am pretty sure that I am not the only one to be so afflicted by such a deficiency.

However, I recently played an introductory game of AK47 Republic.

These are a set of rules by Peter Pig that covers wars in Africa and the Middle East. They're described as rules for the common man, or this case woman. I really enjoyed them, even if I have some reservations about what the figure bases are supposed to represent in real life, but that requires another article to discuss.

However, playing AK47 introduced me to another approach to representing reserves in wargames, and how to do so in Battletech for instance.

To briefly summarise the rules in AK47 has players make up forces, and before deploying, rolling 1D6 for each of the units, where a unit represents a company.

A low roll results in nothing be taken off to the reserve box and the higher the number the more that are. At the beginning of each turn after the first one, players can roll to see if one of there units in the reserve box enters the table. Additionally, you only get so many chances to roll for reserves, but can spend all your chances at once if you so desire.

Failure means that unit never arrives. AK47 also has other tables that cause units to fail to arrive for a host of other reasons too.

Now for BattleTech we generally have a game that plays best with a small number of units per side.

However, we could set up a game where at the start one assembles a company of mechs, and then roll for each mech in each lance appearing at the start of the game. So on 1D6 a result of 1/2 equals no effect, 3/4 put one mech in the reserve box, 5 two mechs in the reserve box, and on a 6 one mech in the reserve box and the other lost for the game. I suggest that the owner rolls to see if a mech goes to the reserves, but the opponent chooses the mech that does.

After turn one, players can roll for reserves to appear, and I’d suggest that a 10/11/12 on 2D6 should be required. To mimic the AK47 limit on the number of rolls you get for reserves I think it should be equal to half the number of units that are in the reserve box. Players can choose to roll all their chances at once, or keep them back for later.

To encourage saving your reserves, every time one brings on a mech one loses a percentage of the possible victory points. I suggest that as the rules are set to get about 2/3 of the company into the reserves box, that each mech that comes on deducts from your victory points a proportional amount of that total.

Now this might sound rather harsh, but at the end of the day we want a playable game, and we know that too many mechs on the table slows things down quite considerably. The values here are basically set so as to put more than 50% of the force in the reserve box.

The advantages of playing the game this is that one will have less control over the composition of your forces, which means that one will need to think about tonnage balance of each lance, and whether or not bringing on reserves is actually helpful, or whether it would be better to withdraw?


  1. Random reserves defeats the purpose of reserves. Historically battles are won or lost by judging when and where one should commit reserves.

    On the offense, reserves are used after a general assault on a line to exploit a week spot. Along the axis of advance the attacker hits every defender along the front. When one shows that it is weaker the reserves are committed to breaking through that section.

    On the defense, once your line is hit and one section is starting to break you commit your reserves to shore it up.

    There are two keys to making reserves useful in a wargame - troop density and combat friction.

    The first is simply, you must not crowd the board. Each player should not have enough troops to cover the entire front in strength. The scenario rules should force them to try to cover the whole area. No 40k-style refused flank. If someone did that in reality the enemy would poor in through the gap and surround and kill your troops.

    The second is combat friction. Units in proximity to the enemy cannot move as fast as units who are completely unengaged. This makes keeping a reserve important, instead of just shifting troops from a quiet section of the front.

    Hope that helps. The trick to figure out those little bits of warfare that are assumed in many history books is to read wildly. Some authors are just better than others at describing the smaller stuff that is only of interest to wargamers.

  2. I would agree with you, but Battletech doesn't handle friction very well. It is afterall a game of giant battling mechs. As for troop density, well it only really handles small forces of up to say a dozen mechs. Very limiting for the deployment of reserves.

    One could of course use BattleForce rules, the current version of which I have yet to try. Certainly in the original version of BattleForce one could deploy large enough forces that made having a reserve worthwhile. However, friction was not modelled by the rules.

    The only SF rules I've played that modelled friction and that would allow reserves to be deployed, were the one I wrote called OHMU: War Machine, which allowed for mechs and cybertanks to be used on the same battlefield. I'm sure that there are other SF rules that have come out since that allow for troop density and combat friction, but they are probably not about giant battling mechs. I'd be happy to proven wrong on this.

  3. I agree Battletech is about mano-a-mano combat (maybe mecha-a-mecha combat) that does not allow for this level of strategy.

    There is also a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem: Is holding back a reserve forces a successful strategy, or is it successful because you have enough forces that you can afford to hold some back? As Coyote notes, timing and combat friction have a lot to do with this too.

  4. This was pretty much why I suggested adapting the AK47 Republic game rules, as a bit of pre-game fluff that would slightly randomize your force, and produce a variable outcomes on otherwise set battles, without having to generate a campaign setting. I do agree that this is not a realistic interpretation of the use of reserves. There again there is nothing realistic about giant battling mecha, but I do like them.

  5. There is another way to handle it as well.

    Honestly having reserves being able to show up being somewhat random is fairly realistic because it is possible they could be delayed or required elsewhere before being sent to that site of combat. By the same token it should be possible to call them up when you need them.

    My suggestion would be that instead of a roll determining if the 'Mechs show up you make a roll determining how long it will be until they show up. So lets say you roll 2D6 on turn one to call up your reserves and result in a 7 or some such. You compare it to a table and see that your reserves show up in 4 rounds.

    It would also be possible to introduce modifiers which delay them further for rolling too soon or too often. You could also have a unlucky result on 12 where the reserve unit is 'lost' and unavailable to reinforce you.

    In this way you get some of the randomness and also have some control over when the reserves are called.

  6. Good article. I find the problem with reserves being applied properly in a gaming environment is two fold. First, most gamers don't know, or don't bother to apply forces apropriately. Since it's a game, most players tend to 'charge head on' with some maneuvering around on a limited scale.
    Combine this with the second problem - that most game systems are far more brutal then reality when it comes to casualties. typically speaking this makes for a game where by the tiem reserves shoudl be applied, it's too late, and all you've managed to do is divide up your forces so your opponent can deal with them in force and in detail.

  7. Absolutely right on both accounts, which was again another reason for adopting a more game orientated approach from AK47, rather than trying to replicate reality.

  8. Have you looked at AT-43 yet? They have an objective based reserve system I sort of like but think it can be tweaked to better. Basically, you capture/hold objectives each round to accrue Reserve Points and when you have enough, you can 'spend' them to bring in reserves. The only problem I have is that while both sides have it, the game itself isn't formatted very well - imho - to allow for both sides to readily get their RP. To fix this I would provide more objectives, and possibly even allow both sides to accrue a base number each round regardless of captured or held objectives.

  9. Reserves imply a sort of meta-game - that is, some decisions to be made about how you want to allocate force between multiple objectives. If you could commit overwhelming force to all of your objectives this would be easy. Having limited forces brings some difficult decisions.

    Our local group played a Battletech planetary invasion campaign (two actually) where this decision making was really the key factor. Very often we would end up with battles that were complete mismatches, which wasn't much fun. Calling in reserves helped, but there were few consequences to doing so, and it didn't really work too well.
    I think we needed a way to force mandatory retreats when forces were not balanced for an interesting scenario.

  10. A good point EastwoodDC. Nothing worse than a pointless game set-up.

    Another way of doing reserves is to bid down your own forces, but it does require that you have objectives to make this work.

    For instance your objective is to make a recon patrol of the battlezone. Recon patrols are not about engaging with the enemy, but spotting them without being spotted. So both side start with a lance each of their choice, but the recon patrol lance can trade down mechs, Now you need an objective for the other side too, which might be a combat patrol i.e: engage any targets of opportunity, but don't get caught up with superior forces. Again the player could trade down mechs.

    Only trouble is that you might well end up with only one mech per side, not that this is a bad thing, but it may not be the game you want.

    So perhaps we need a carrot here? Howabout, you have two objectives and both have victory points assigned to them. Players then bid on the scenario with the most victory points by composing a force that they think will meet the game objectives.

    The victory points indicate the maximum value of the force that can be fielded, so the players know not to underbid as they would end up with less than the lower value objective. Unless of course they want to?

    Both reveal what they want to use, and the person who has built the cheapest force gets to play that side. What do people think?

  11. "I think we needed a way to force mandatory retreats when forces were not balanced for an interesting scenario."

    I think the problem with this is you're forcing players to play in a way they probably should eb anyway. It's too easy in a gaming environment to forget how a human being would react in a bad situation.
    Being outnumbered and getting your pants kicked in typically results in a retreat of some sort, if and when possible. however in a game, retreating doesn't have the same payoff. I believe that's where a good campaign can make the difference. If players want to stick it out to the nasty end and lose their entire force for that battle, it should have an impact on what they have to distribute for the rest of the campaign.

    I'm not a huge fan of a lot of rules dictating behaviour to be honest. A smattering of morale, or leadership is one thing but I think it's also possible to just socialize the idea that you'd like to play something 'more realistic'.

    Honestly, I think the gaming paradigm of winning a game by wiping out your opponent to the man, or nearly, is absurd in most cases. In fact, I'm writing my 20mm modern rules to reflect something less "bloody" and more "realistic"

  12. Been thinking about your comment Grabula, and the way I see it it is that rules are like big sticks. A necessary thing. but carrots are better. I think that the carrot for encouraging players to withdraw has to be done by giving points for retreating, and then as you say, socialising them to the idea.