Home Forums General Game Design How best to represent holding back/committing reserves?

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    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    Most successful generals kept a reserve most of the time, until that critical moment when they committed it either to smash the enemy or to avert disaster for themselves.

    This is something wargames rules don’t always represent well, because we don’t have as much fog of war on our tables as in the real world.

    I’ve discussed this in a blog post here.

    I list a few different ways a game can handle reserves, but I’m sure there are many more. I’d be really interested in others’ views on what rule mechanisms do this best.

    Avatar photoTony S

    Whenever I try a new set of rules, one of my criteria are reserves; that is – do the rules reward the use of reserves?   If yes, then I think the rules are doing something right. If reserves are pointless, then I probably won’t like the rules.  As you’ve pointed out Chris, rules where reserves are effective are rules that include a large measure of fog of war.

    But, if I may be so bold, I feel that your blog post is describing what I’d call “reinforcements” rather than “reserves”.   Perhaps it’s just semantics, but I feel that reserves are troops on the table…but the player has made the decision to withhold them from the action, and then continues to make the decision to not commit them, or if and when the situation warrants it, to release them to exploit a perceived weakness in the enemy’s front, or (and I’m more familiar with this) to desperately shore up my own faltering lines.

    A great deal of the fun I have in historical gaming are the decision points that exist during a battle.  Holding back reserves are a crucial part of that, which is one the reasons why I like rules that do reward having a reserve.  (Another big reason is that as successful generals in real life used reserves effectively, then a ruleset that doesn’t isn’t a particularly good model of history).

    However, I think reinforcements are off table troops that appear on the table, through such clever mechanisms as you’ve described in your blog post.  Don’t get me wrong; reinforcements are certainly historical, whether your CinC releases the heavy cavalry Division to your force, or whether your stragglers finally make it to the battle, or if your neighbouring corps marches to the sound of battle.  I do like the way you use reinforcements to guide the historical flow of the battle.

    But in my experience, usually players tend to instantly commit such reinforcements, which often removes one important element of what I think reserves are – the player’s decision on when exactly to commit those troops.  Because as reinforcements, by definition they’ve already been committed.  I realize players don’t need to employ those figures that suddenly appear on the table, but usually we do.

    I’m probably being overly pedantic, but I think there’s a subtle distinction.  I think reserves are troops that a player decides when and how to much to commit to the battle, and where.  Reinforcements are troops that the player only decides how to use them, as they’ve been committed by a rule, or random die roll or something.

    I do admit that some of your examples blur those lines, like reserves that are released when a river defense is breached, or a village is held, objectives that are under the player’s control.  But I think those are very specific, clear goals whereas if a player simply holds back troops, everything is entirely under his decision making process – how much to hold back, and the more nebulous question when to actually commit them.  Perhaps it would be when a river is crossed, or a central village is taken…but it’s not automatic.

    There are a couple of rulesets that I admire when it does to reserves.  The first is Blucher, by Sam Mustafa.  Uncommitted troops, that haven’t moved yet, are given a special reserve move far greater than committed troops.  It encourages the player to hold back a reserve, so as to gain that sudden rapid deployment.

    The second is at the other end of the scale, way down to platoons.  In Chain of Command, troops only appear from your jump off points.  I find it interesting that in our initial games, we’d throw our figures on the table as fast as possible.  Later on, we began to dimly realize that holding troops back was actually often a huge advantage, especially as we would never know our opponent’s force composition, but rather it was kept secret.

    Other TooFatLardies rules, like Sharpe Practice, do much the same, but I prefer the CoC mechanisms.

    Anyway, great post Chris.  I always enjoy reading a rules author’s “designer’s notes”.  Thanks!


    Avatar photoPhil Dutré

    I think the use of reserves has less to do with the rules but more with playing style and scenario design. In the end, you can always quickly come up with some rules or scenario events that allow reseverves/reinforcements being brought on the table in later turns, with more or less control about timing and point and arrival in the hands of the players.

    A more important issue whether a wargame can deal with reserves is troop density on the table and engagement distances. If you want to have and see your reserves on the table, you also need a ‘rear area’ behind the front lines that can be used for manoeuvring the reserves (an alternative is to have them off-table, but then, any wargamer *wants* to have the toys on the table!). But if your ruleset has e.g. movement and/or firing distances that allow troops to move or shoot from one end to the other end in a turn or two, then the notion of having reserves on-table becomes a bit silly. Then they become “pop-up” troops.

    Troop density on the tabe is one of these often unspoken assumptions in many rulesets. Rulesets are written with a specific troop density in mind (another is terrain density), and this is important for a ruleset to work ‘properly’, yet is often left to the players how to deal with this issue. Hence the often-mocked WW2 games which have too many troops on the table, and the whole thing more resembles a parking lot rather than an actual battle.

    Avatar photoPhil Dutré

    I also tend to make a subtle difference between ‘reserves’ and ‘reinforcements’.

    Reinforcements are troops that can be used in the current game, but I haven’t decided yet where to deploy them, and I want to postpone that decision to see how the battle evolves. Ruleswise, this might mean that reinforcements “kept in the rear” might need a bonus on their movement to be able to move around a bit faster to have a meaningful effect in the game.

    Reserves I associate more with campaigns. Reserves for me are troops not meant to be used, but could be used if things go wrong. But a good general might want to keep their reserves pristine, to fight the follow-up battle the next day or next week. Reserves to me are more like an insurance, while reinforcements are more like spreading out your power in time and space for the current battle.

    I don’t know whether I have the proper nomenclature correct in terms of military vocabulary, but they feel like different concepts to me.

    Avatar photoJohn D Salt

    This is an interesting one.

    The blog discussion does seem to be about the conditions triggering the release of reserves not under the player’s control (hence reinforcements from the player’s perspective), perhaps motivated by the observation that wargamers are terrible ones for getting all the toys on the table. I think a more interesting question is how and why a player might keep a reserve from the forces under their command. Very few wargames rules I have ever seen reward such a practice; better to get everyone into action as quickly as possible.

    In real life, keeping a reserve is critical. Advice at all levels from platoon up is to maintain one, and to generate a new reserve once an existing reserve is committed. Churchill’s famous question to Gamelin “Où est la masse de manœuvre?” highlighted the inevitability of the fall of France in 1940 when it received a negative answer.

    Why keep a reserve? So that the commander retains some ability to influence the course of the battle once it has started, whether to rectify failure or exploit success. We seem to grossly overestimate the number of levers of control a real life commander has. On the wargames table, changes of situation are instantly visible from a God’s-eye view, and a frictionless command system allows orders to be changed, transmitted, digested, and infallibly understood in no time. The magical Zinntruppen receiving the new orders have no difficulty in dropping their previous task and taking up a new one, and if they suffer any fatigue or annoyance at being buggered about by having orders changed every five minutes (or whatever the turn length is) they are too polite to show it. “Order, counter-order, disorder” is a proverb entirely irrelevant to nearly all wargames tables (along with “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted”, “Don’t put everything in the shop window”, and “A small counterattack now is worth more than a big counterattack later”).

    In real life, once troops are committed to a fight, they tend very strongly to stay committed, for a variety of very good reasons. The commander therefore needs to keep a reserve of uncommitted combat power in order to be able to deal with possible developments. The disrupting, disorganising and exhausting effects of being in combat, even if not suffering heavy casualties, mean that a fresh reserve will have much more effect on its commitment than would be possible with a force of comparable size extracted from the hurly-burly of action, given new orders, and sent in again.

    As a side note, one exception to this general rule is the question of reserve artillery. Royal Artillery doctrine has long been that there should be no such thing as reserve artillery, guns should be firing on the enemy at every available opportunity. This is OK if you can find targets, have the ammunition available, and can dominate the counter-battery battle, but the Royal Regiment has usually managed these pretty well. The reason for the difference is that artillery can quickly switch its effects from one part of the battlefield to another far away in a manner quite impossible for other arms.

    What rule mechanisms can encourage players to keep reserves? It seems to me that it’s a question of gumming up elements once committed to action, while giving the uncommitted considerable freedom. Some mechanisms I’ve seen:

    * In Ragnar Brothers’ “Whipping Bobby Lee”, elements more than a certain distance from the enemy can maneouvre much more freely (need fewer command points, cover greater distances) than those in contact.

    * In SPI’s “Thirty Years War Quad”, a common combat result is disruption. This stops a unit moving, reduces its combat power in defence, and takes some time to cure. It is a very common result of combat; a small number of fresh units will kick the juice out of any number of disrupted ones.

    * In SPI’s “Blue and Grey Quad”, an (optional?) “attack effectiveness” rule means that units are limited to one attack a day. Instead of the rather unrealistic procedure of trying lots of low-odds attacks and seeing what turns up, players are encouraged rather to plan properly-scaled attacks, and to employ fresh troops to exploit success.

    If two of my three examples come from board wargames, I think it’s because figure games are especially bad at showing the value of reserves.

    The real answer would, no doubt, be to try to represent the process of planning and issuing orders, and to limit the actions of our toy sodiers to what they have been ordered to do, and restrict the commander’s ability to change orders to a believable level. Wargamers tend not to like this, and dislike being deprived of freedoom of action in the ways they should be once forces are committed. Telepathic heroes are still the rule rather than the exception on the tabletop.

    An especially pernicious misuse of reserves I have seen on the wargames table is for an umpire to release reserves to a side that has just taken a beating. Here, reserves are used to limit the success of the winning side in the interests of “balance” or “fairness”. This would be OK if the player had consciously made a provision to maintain a reserve for this purpose, but that is not how I have seen it used. As a “theatre of cruelty” umpire, I would be more likely to give reserves to the side that starts winning, in accordance with the principle “Reinforce success, not failure”. But that is another of those tactical proverbs that never seems to quite work out on the wargames table.

    All the best,



    Sam Mustafa’s Bluecher handles reserves very well. since a fresh unit is almost always better than a victorious fatigued unit, you harbor forces.  As for command control, when a player commit a dedicated reserve it gets a movement boost which contributes a bit to the fog of war in that even if reserves are visible on the table, you cannot be sure where the opponent might send them as they have a longer reach.

    So in addition to fog of war concerns, rules that don’t really attrit victorious units downplay the role of reserves

    Mick Hayman
    Margate and New Orleans

    Avatar photoWhirlwind

    Some really interesting posts in this one.  And +1 to everything that John wrote.  Personally I think that these points are the most important:

    It is too easy to re-deploy committed troops and/or manoeuvre in the face of the enemy

    ‘Freshness’ in troops is an under-rated quality (or fatigue is an under-rated problem, same thing)

    A game with few turns will have more problems dealing with reserves

    Gamers not keeping a reserve is a symptom of problems elsewhere in a rules system rather than a discrete problem.

    I don’t really like extra/bonus movement for reserves but I will live with it if it doesn’t mess up  the time scale too much; I detest it for reinforcements.  The key point about reinforcements is how often they turn up late/not at all/in the wrong place, not how tactically efficient they are.




    Avatar photoPhil Dutré

    ‘Freshness’ in troops is an under-rated quality (or fatigue is an under-rated problem, same thing)

    Many rulesets try to cover this by giving some bonus for the “first shot” or “first melee” in the game for a specific unit.

    In one of my self-written rulesets, I track the “status” of a unit by a quality marker ranging from 10 to 1. It’s an ever decreasing number, and affects combat effectiveness. It’s also the only number I track for units, no figure removal or other status indicators (broken, disrupted, disorganized, …). That sorts of simulates “troop freshness” in my games.

    Avatar photoPhil Dutré

    I don’t really like extra/bonus movement for reserves but I will live with it if it doesn’t mess up the time scale too much

    I guess that’s the balance we have to find between playability and realistic time and distance scales. I would not be a very good game (YMMV) is the “combat” is restricted to 1/10 the area of the entre table, and all the other space is only used for moving around a few troops kept as reinforcements/reserves. Thus, whatever happens “behind the lines” is often compressed both in space and time.


    I think most wargaming rules downsize the ability of an unengaged unit or “operational” move to cover greater distances than the standard tactical move (which is also usually very small and ahistorical) as a compromise for the granularity of turns on rates of fire and opportunities to jump from cover to cover to avoid defensive fire that might otherwise occur.

    If a rule set has good command control rules with some variability in the ability to even get a unit to move, I don’t have a problem with faster moving units coming out of reserve.

    Perhaps another approach would be to divide tactical moment into 2 or three sub phases before a single melee phase.  If engagement is sticky, reserves would be able to move in subsequent phase as  they simply aren’t engaged.

    Mick Hayman
    Margate and New Orleans


    ‘Freshness’ in troops is an under-rated quality (or fatigue is an under-rated problem, same thing)

    Many rulesets try to cover this by giving some bonus for the “first shot” or “first melee” in the game for a specific unit. In one of my self-written rulesets, I track the “status” of a unit by a quality marker ranging from 10 to 1. It’s an ever decreasing number, and affects combat effectiveness. It’s also the only number I track for units, no figure removal or other status indicators (broken, disrupted, disorganized, …). That sorts of simulates “troop freshness” in my games.

    This is basically the Bluecher approach.  Cohesion is a better measure than casualties for the effectiveness of any unit be it guard or rabble.

    Mick Hayman
    Margate and New Orleans

    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    Wow – that was popular! A big thank you to the dozens and dozens of you who provided such thoughtful and interesting replies, here and elsewhere. I have done my best to respond to everyone’s comments with a (long) summary update to the original post.

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