Home Forums General Game Design DBx vs Neil Thomas/Shock vs Attrition

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    n a recent thread on TMP http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=414253 there was a comment about the similarity / lack of it between the Phil Barker DBx/HFG family of rules and Neil Thomas’ various rulesets. Personally I think there are some similarities but one crucial dominating difference: The DBx rules use a “shock” model, where the way to defeat the enemy (at the unit-to-unit level) is by inflicting decisive damage at a single moment (i.e. no attrition) whereas Neil Thomas’ rules are stongly based on attrition i.e. requires you to wear down enemy units over a number of turns.

    Assuming you agree with my distinction between the rulesets, which do you prefer? (Obviously, feel free to reject my distinction in the first place!)


    John D Salt

    Undeterred by the fact that I know precious little about pre-cordite warfare, let me divide the whole of human military history into three eras, which I shall call “shiny”, “smoky” and “smokeless”.

    In the shiny period, before gunpowder was used in personal weapons and you killed your opponent with something sharp and shiny, it is my impression from sources like Arther Banks’ Atlas of Military History that casualties were grossly disorportionate, in most battles, between winner and loser. This I think shows that taking casualties did not cause a side to lose, but that losing caused a side to take casualties — most of the actual killing would be done as “free hacks” at the back of the fleeing enemy after they had broken. Therefore it seems to me that for the whole period of application of DBA, the “shock” type mechanism is more natural. Plus I think the mechanism of opposed die-rolls is sheer quivering genius. What’s more, I am entirely prepared to go along with Phil Barker’s rationale for this — given the comms capabilities of the period, a general would simply have no way of telling what the current state of a unit was beyond being able to see that it was fleeing in disorder, being pushed back in good order, or advancing cheering.

    In the smoky period, the hellish substance of gunpowder has been introduced into warfare, and a process of miniaturization reduces the size of guns so that they could be carried by an individual hackbusher, arquebusier or musketeer. It was realised that rifling could improve accuracy — the little demons attracted by the gunpowder, who would normally interfere with a bullet’s flight out of sheer devilry, being thrown off by the spin of the bullet — but infantry combat continued to be conducted at such close ranges that smoothbores were generally preferred, and permitted a higher rate of fire. With men standing in close order ranks with levelled muskets and exchanging volleys at a few dozen paces, massive casualties could be inflicted in a short time. While the decision would still be reached by one side breaking and running, the old huge disparity of casualties between winner and loser largely disappeared — “Nothing but a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”. This makes me think that an attrition-based approach might seem more suitable, and I have to say that I very much like the WRG 1685-1845 rules “Bang you’re dead” system, with numerous but simple condition-triggered reaction tests.

    In the smokeless period, cordite and nitrocellulose compounds replace black powder as a propellant, picric acid and other high explosives replace it as a bursting charge, and the invention of the Bessemer process makes it economical to obtain the high-quality steel that can cope with the proper tremendous heat and pressure involved. With other cunning devices such as the bolt-action rifle, the Maxim gun, and the Minié and then the spitzer bullet, this makes the whole business of warfare a great deal more dangerous, and at the same time considerably less dangerous. The idea of dressing up in brightly-coloured uniforms with plumes in your hat, and standing in neat, close ranks exchanging volleys at a few dozen paces is now right out. The evolutionary pressures against the idea are so great that even highly conservative and stupid people cannot fail to notice in quite a short time that it is far too dangerous. Skirmish lines become the usual thing, and the lines get thinner and thinner and the uniforms get duller and duller and the weapons deadlier and deadlier, until people dressed in khaki or feldgrau are potting away at each other over considerable distances, and calling down indirect HE fire on each other, having removed all romance and gaiety from war and replaced it with mournful poems by Owen or Sassoon. It turns out that people have adapted to counter the lethality of the new weapons even better than was required to keep a constant hazard rate, so, paradoxically, it needs a lot more shots to score a hit, and a lot more time and effort to inflict a casualty, than ever it did in the old days; people are no longer standing in close ranks, but spreading out, lying down, hiding in holes, and generally not behaving like cooperative targets. In the shiny period, battles would be done within the day, and might take up little more space than a few fields. In the smoky period, things spread out a bit in space and time, but you would still probably be done in time for tea. Now a “battle” could last for weeks or months, and spread over vast areas, meaning that psychological casualties are an aspect of this mode of warfare, and also that it makes it much harder to wargame on a table with miniatures. I would say that for this period I would favour a method based on what one might call “psychological attrition”. Modern weapons give the opportunity for an enemy to be shattered quickly, if he is daft enough to march into your fire-sack, counterattack piecemeal onto your Pakfront, or performa any of dozens of other technologically-enabled acts of tactical stupidity. A competent enemy, though, might have to be worn out instead of knocked out. As Lord Moran put it, a man’s courage is his capital, and he is always spending. For this period, I would want rules that reflect both physical attrition and psychological attrition, with “shock” represented as a big hit in psychological attrition. I think there is still a lot to do to create convincing wargame models of the way the 20th-century battlefield works, because, despite the smokelessness of the propellants, in this period the fog of war is thicker than ever.

    Executive summary:

    Shiny period — shock
    Smoky period — attrition
    Smokeless period — psychological attrition

    Chris Pringle

    What a lovely essay – thanks, John!


    Not familiar with either but I think I would prefer a system that uses both. If an initial smack doesn’t work then attrition it is.
    Though I would try to maximise my chances of the initial slap working.

    Guy Farrish

    John, interesting and no doubt containing broad truths (particularly on psychological attrition in modern battlefields) but smoky=attrition? Probably depends on the period, theatre and combatants?

    Paddy Griffith in ‘Forward into Battle’ Ch3 ‘1808-15 The Alleged Firepower of Wellington’s Infantry’ for example at least suggests that there were shock elements at the height of the black powder period that were battle winners (eg. British volley and charge eg the 50th at Vimeiro). Resorting to the attrition of the firefight may have resulted in a lot more deaths and injuries but also to a deadlock which was settled only by fresh bodies of troops that gave the shock impetus against weakened units (British at Albuera). This shock is perhaps more psychological shock than the physical shock of shiny steel (the threat of shiny steel perhaps) but is no less rapidly decisive compared to standing and blasting away at each other at relatively close range. (although shock action after attrition works too!)

    So for black powder warfare at least there should perhaps be a combination of decisive shock action (if training discipline and morale can be maintained in the face of the enemy) and some resort to attrition if they cannot. Of course a preference for attritional firefight vice shock action may be evinced by military theorists of certain periods of musketry warfare, but it seems that the linear progression from shock to attritional firepower to psychological attrition as battle winners may not be so straight as it first appears?


    I have been thinking over John’s very interesting post for the last couple of weeks.  I am wondering about a couple of points:

    1.  In the shiny period, whilst the broad principle that most casualties were a symptom of defeat rather than a cause seems to tally with my understanding of how the majority of casulties were caused, I was wondering if that is the end of it?  For example, if two phalanxes meet and the first phalanx causes slightly more casualties than the second, and the second then collapses, then it was attrition that caused the collapse, even if the casualties subsequently occurring in the massacre of the losing phalanx are orders of magnitude higher.
    2.  Conversely, in the smoky period, although the number of casualties seems to have been much more loosely linked to victory or defeat, was the mechanism of tactical victory shock?  i.e. a physical advance almost to the point of contact with the defender, preferably on a flank or in the rear?


    Northern Monkey

    That’s a great summary John D Salt.


    Not familiar with either but I think I would prefer a system that uses both. If an initial smack doesn’t work then attrition it is. Though I would try to maximise my chances of the initial slap working.

    Impetus does this, you can finish your opponent in one fell swoop or can get involved in a long slog, one of the things I like about it over other systems I have used

    My attempt at a Blog: http://ablogofwar.blogspot.co.uk/

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