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"How best to represent holding back/committing reserves?" Topic

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ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP15 Dec 2022 2:02 p.m. PST

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.

Personal logo KimRYoung Supporting Member of TMP15 Dec 2022 5:08 p.m. PST

How about just using the same method real life generals did in actual battles. That is what I have always done.

Its not a "rules" issue, its a strategy issue and needs no special rules.


Speculus15 Dec 2022 6:01 p.m. PST

We used to give reserves a shorter time to activate an order change. This would give a player an incentive to hold reserves, in order to more quickly react to threats/ make attacks/etc.

Personal logo Doctor X Supporting Member of TMP15 Dec 2022 8:37 p.m. PST

Good blog post.

I've used several of the methodologies you mention and have noted the others for future scenario usage when appropriate.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP15 Dec 2022 10:06 p.m. PST

Putting aside the various 'play-balance' reasons for controlling the release of reserves, the questions I have, particularly with the BBB examples given in the blog are:

1. Who had control over the reserves. If the player is in the role of the commander of the whole force, then historically there is no reason to keep the player from controlling all the troops. In general, 'reserves' were basically a designation the commanding general gave part of his army because of his particular plans and reasons.

2. If it is a matter of reserves having to reach the battlefield from some distance, then it is still up to the commander when to request their appearance.

3. If a player is not the CinC for a side, then the reserves are controlled by an 'AI' commander/rules for doing that. I don't know if that was the case with the blog examples.

4. The 'special' rules for reserves in movement, initiative,
etc. whether a benefit or limitation, none make any sense to me for the very same reasons given in #1. Reserves were no harder to control that troops committed to combat, and maybe much less being outside the engagements.

So, I don't see any good historical reason to limit or control reserves with various 'release' rules unless it is done for game balance or the troops have some distance to travel to get to the battlefield/table.

smithsco15 Dec 2022 10:59 p.m. PST

I think the deeper issue with reserves and fog of war falls generally on game design. I find that crunchy detailed very accurate rules take a lot of fog away. It's a simulation about the outcome on the table not the experience of the commander.
In my group we've come to emphasize the experience of simulation. We play with table size and movement speeds. Making every unit type faster and giving a little more open space for maneuver made our games far more fun while more realistic tactics paid off. Slow plodding line armies are predictable. When a commander has options then predictability goes out the window. It encourages the use of reserves because you can be surprised. It also means reserves may be committed in times or manners that are unexpected. In a 2 v1 game with Raul size total forces, my teammate was hitting our opponent in the flank. He chose to send his cavalry reserve in a charge against me because my ranged fire was doing more damage to his army. I was caught off guard and driven back.

UshCha16 Dec 2022 2:44 a.m. PST

My personal and possibly biased opinion, is that the primary failure of games to model the use of reserves falls entirely at game mechanic level. If your game only lasts 4 to 6 bounds and you can only get across half the board in that time, reserves are never going to have time to wait, then be committed and do some fighting.

The use of resereve moves may help a bit but typicaly they don't work that well. We learnt how it might be achieved with DBM who's march move on a large table with sensible regular forces (most competion games feature far larger forces for the table size reccomended by the Author) did work.

Be it Ancent or modern, rules that only provide marginal increases in speed between reserves and troops in combat will (and do) fail dismally. It seems to me many designers fail to run test cases to check this.

A suitable one would be to set two points say 1/2 a table away. See how long it take troops held in reserev with a pre defined order of march to move to a position and deploy vs unit in combat formation to move to the positions. If both take a similar time than the rules are clearly at fault or (unlikely) that the table is too small. If the rules cannot cope, then ajusting fog of war makes no diffrence if timely intervention is not possible under optimum condidtions.

I suspect, but cannot be definative, I have no direct interest in such games, but none liner rangeing systems may, by distorting the universe, not help, as all units fight effectively within a very tight table "winow of effeciveness" Ie machine guns in somme cases be effective out to2 to 4 times that of rifles 300m rifle 1200m mechine gun, whereas in table distances and range bands the weapons have very similar effective distances, this makes depoying in a sensible position perhaps harder so adding unreasonable friction to deployment of reserves.

As always moans about fog of war can be a bit strange from my personal point of view. Moaning you don't have it and than moaning that it is unacceptable to hide troops seems unreasonable to me personally, but that attitude is not uncommon with folk more interested in figures than games.

I am convinced there are solutions out there but how many players actually want it? It does increase the complexity of the tactics and that cannot be learnt in the first few games. If you only play a game 3 to 4 times a year with less than adept players it may be a non starter anyway.

Mark J Wilson Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 3:25 a.m. PST

In my view the problem is that the players want to do all the things battalion/squadron officers do, but want to play with more than one battalion/squadron. Result over detailed slow rules in which there is no time for reserves to have any significance.

The solution I've tried, and met much 'consumer' resistance with, is to subsume all localised maneuvering and firing in a single fairly simple calculation/die throw called 'combat'. Pre combat moves are relatively large so even an off table reserve turns up and takes 1-2 moves to come into combat. Troops in indecisive combat effectively don't move. To me these rules are 'working but not fully tuned', but it's clear they don't tick the boxes for a lot of the other potential players. In the end commercial rule writers don't write rules plays don't like.

Wolfhag16 Dec 2022 4:18 a.m. PST

A US Company Commander would typically deploy two platoons to the FEBA and one in reserve not in enemy contact. A Platoon leader two squads up and one in reserve. All would be under the same C&C rules and should be on the board or the player knows almost exactly how long it would take to come on. It's not a "chance" type of thing if the reserves are not engaged, suppressed, or under artillery fire. I would call these tactical reserves.

Any reserves the Company Commander needs from the battalion level would be what I call strategic reserves. I think they would be outside the scope of most games. Reserves are generally mobile units because they need to get to the action fast.

I use a system where a player can generate a "lull" in the battle by pulling back out of the enemy LOS to give the reinforcements time to arrive.

Reserves are generally mobile units held back to exploit breakthroughs that are again outside the scope of many games.

I think the overall strategy is to force your opponent to commit his reserves before you do. Once he commits them into combat you now have the maneuver initiative. It should be based on the player's skill, not a rule or chance type of thing.


79thPA Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 7:13 a.m. PST

UshCha brought up a point that I hadn't considered, and that is the popularity of the "games are six turns" type of rules that are out there.

If time allowed, I think that I would look at off-board holding zones. You designate what is in each zone (if anything), and how far away the zone actually is in the table edge. Depending on the time period, do you activate reserves by a rider, via radio, by timetable, etc.

Decebalus16 Dec 2022 7:17 a.m. PST

Chris. I think, your examples are mostly no rules for reserves. They are special rules, that make more interesting games, give some variation to the scenario or force the players to stick to a historical precedence by giving some incentive with additional troops.

Rules for real reserves should:
- have reserves be in control of the players,
- give more flexibility or options to use the troops,
- help win the games.

advocate16 Dec 2022 9:55 a.m. PST

Some rules absolutely run counter to using anything but local reserves. Almost anything with an army break point will mean that reserves will tend to arrive after that limit has been reached. Then you have the problem of fighting to the last man; so maybe some kind of 'major unit' morale is needed to enable (say) a division to keep acting though individual brigades might be exhausted.

Personal logo Extra Crispy Sponsoring Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 9:57 a.m. PST

If players don't use reserves in your games then your rules are a problem.

DBA is a classic example. It rewards putting everything up front, not holding units back. That's fine given the design goals of that game.

One issue is many games lack a "double time" move that reserves would use to get to the action. If my reserves move the same as my engaged troops they need to be awful close to be of use.

IronDuke596 Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 10:42 a.m. PST

A very good question and discussion that has given me an idea to enhance our General de Brigade games.

Regarding brigade morale test, if the reserve/support brigade (ie not engaged) is within 24" (28mm) of the affected brigade, the tested brigade gets a +1.

Similarly, for the army falter and break point calculation, the army (div/corps) would get a +1 if there is a reserve (non committed) brigade that is within 24" of at least one its fellow brigades.

I agree with previous comments that this reserve consideration is not likely viable for 'fast play' games.

Personal logo etotheipi Sponsoring Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 12:42 p.m. PST

So, I don't see any good historical reason to limit or control reserves with various 'release' rules

Our OCI Day rules have "AI controlled" reserves. In the actual invasion, the Italian force was relying on the Nazis for reinforcements which never came, so they had a pittance of additional Italian troops. Likewise, the Greek success relied on levying reserves from the local population.

The scenario has variants from a mildly randomized low Italian and high Greek reserve set to very random forces that could tip the scales either way.

The non-historical variants are more historical in a way … neither side knew how many additional troops they would get and when. So not following the known historical numbers leads to a historical commander's dilemma.

UshCha16 Dec 2022 12:50 p.m. PST

I don't think it's fast play such as infrequent play rules. Inevitably you need a number of games to align yourself with how long it takes to get reserves where you need them in a timely manner. It also like artillery takes some effort and experience to recognize where the reserves are best places with regard to the overall objectives and the terrain involved.

advocate to be honest I never really understood wargame morale rules and personally I don't see moving up reserves as being driven by morale rules. But that is most definitely a personal opinion. It fall in my opinion only to the likes of a Pinned result whereby at some point a unit diced to be pinned and a label is put on as "Pinned". Our own rules have no need of such in less than ideal circumstances a group of elements gets pinned, that is there suppression/damage to individual elements accumulates to the extent they can no longer advance without additional combat power to win the firefight and let them move. This to me is a more plausible than a die roll which while not arbitrary does not take into account the fine detail of the actual situation.

Finding a problem is the first step, the solution may be achieved in many different ways and may be heavily dependent on the concepts warfare model being used.

14Bore16 Dec 2022 1:15 p.m. PST

I have a large table so reserves are mostly on it at beginning, but off table reserve are the trick. Played a few convention games those off table don't seem to get on for long. And one thing I have done that helps is historical battle and the reserve gets there when they got there.

Dragon Gunner16 Dec 2022 1:57 p.m. PST

I think alot depends on the scale of your game and scenario design…

1. Skirmish games, they arrive to support a defender in the final turns of the game arriving like some old west cavalry.

2. Operation level game, they are on table not committed to the front line. The player decides where and when they are committed. (My preference!)

3. Operation level game, they arrive randomly the player has no control of their deployment or when they arrive, part of scenario design.

Stoppage16 Dec 2022 4:34 p.m. PST

How about turning-around the idea of reserves being under control of the gamer; instead making their employment subject to the whims of fortuna?

German WW2 had an independent commander of the (tactical) reserves. Sometimes this worked – the attackers repelled, othertimes the reserves were thrown in and wasted/consumed.

So – for your close order battles – reserves sent in too soon will increase target density and allow enemy artillery to do their thing; disorder fighting lines and allow enemy cavalry to do their thing, etc, etc.

Or – the reserve decide to march away somewhere else (Waterloo-Grouchy), or lurk uselessly (Borodino-Imperial Guard), or run in and get blasted away (Borodino-Russian artillery)

Or – arrive at the right time and place and carry the day (Marengo-Desaix)

Major Mike16 Dec 2022 5:24 p.m. PST

The truth is in the gods eye view of the player. They know immediately, in many rules, what the other player is doing and if certain parts of the line are doing well or in trouble. Many players do not want their god's eye view hindered.
I have played games where written order have to be issued to the major commands and can only be changed by the arrival of written orders from their higher commander. Couriers riding to deliver messages to be acted upon as best as the recipient understands them. This takes foresight and a bit of planning since, as in real life things never seem to immediately happen or occur as intended. Decisions have to be made and acted upon.
Sent a message away in a game asking for a cavalry brigade to reinforce my position. Half a dozen turns later the commander to my left nudges me and says," here's those cavalry you asked for". He had misread the OB and only sent half of the troops I had requested.
But nowadays, many cannot be bothered with such minutia. Other than local reserves (commanding a brigade and putting two regiments forward and one in a second line as a reserve) or scheduled reinforcements that arrive at a particular point on the map at a particular time, the people I game with now don't care. Everything into the line and fight.

14Bore16 Dec 2022 5:47 p.m. PST

Convention games are usually by game master, but as wrote they hardly get on the board

Personal logo Old Contemptible Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 5:49 p.m. PST

I agree with Kim. If a player wants to keep a reserve he can. This is not a rules situation. If there is a situation where units need to be kept in reserve then a scenario-specific rule could do this very easily. Like you cannot commit the guard unit to turn 9 or not until you lose a percentage.

If you are playing a campaign game then that should be the player's choice. If you want to keep using your guard then don't come crying when having no guard to commit at some future battle.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 6:28 p.m. PST

I remember one large multi-player Napoleonics game we played many years ago. The rules were the old GDW "Fire and Steel". In that system the units get weaker and more likely to rout the more beat up they get. Pretty typical, actually. Anyway we had a new fellow to our group. He knew Napoleonics, but not the F&S rules. Most of our players usually threw everything into a fight as quickly as they could, but this guy held a whole division of Cuirassiers in reserve and refused to commit them despite the cajoling of the other players on his side. "It's not time yet." he would say. Finally, in the end stages of the game when both armies were worn down, he let loose his heavy cavalry and these fresh troops utterly destroyed the opposing army in just a couple of turns. Now THAT was the way to use reserves! The rules rewarded the commitment of fresh troops and he took full advantage of it.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2022 10:01 p.m. PST


I've had a few similar experiences on the table. It requires game dynamics that provides adequate power to fresh troops visa vie spent ones. It is great to see that happen.

I have also played games where the difference between fresh troops and worn [not just disordered for part of a turn.] to be so minor as to not significantly reward the effort to keep reserves.

But even then, a significant number of troops hitting available to hit a disordered section of the line justify keeping a reserve.

Thistlebarrow17 Dec 2022 3:05 a.m. PST

All of my wargames are generated by a campaign, so I have long struggled with this problem. I quickly discovered that holding reserves off table, or a long way from the front line, did not work because it took too many game moves to reach the front line.

My wargames are set up directly from the campaign map. There are twelve moves in each game, corresponding with 12 hours movement on the campaign map.

Each side has three corps plus a commander in chief (CinC). Each corps is opposed to an enemy corps. The CinC is usually located near the centre square to ease command and control.

On the night before the battle the CinC can take command of brigades from all three corps to form a reserve. These can be infantry, cavalry or artillery or a mix of all three.

All four commands move at the start of the game. Each corps has orders to attack the opposite enemy corps, or hold their position. The two reserve have no orders, and can be given them at the start of each move.

The defending player will usually use the reserve to reinforce the most vulnerable part of his defence. For example concentrate artillery to cover the most obvious approach. Or he may create a reserve behind the game objective, usually a town

The attacking play has the most initiative. He can create a reserve to support his main attack. I often combine the grenadier brigades from each corps to exploit the most successful of the corps attacks to their left or right. Or two or three cavalry brigades to dominate the enemy cavalry in one corps area. Of create a grand battery for the same purpose.

I appreciate that this is not how a historical reserve would be deployed. But it does overcome the difficulty of reaching the front line in time and always plays an important role in deciding the outcome of the battle/game.

It requires the CinC player on each side to plan his battle during the map campaign, to ensure he is in the right position on the table to place the reserve. This is usually with the centre of the three corps. It also requires that player to plan his game in advance so that his reserve will play an important role. Finally it allows each player to take advantage of the game as it develops. And it rewards the player with the best plan and at the same time the player who commits his reserve last.

The concept may be a little difficult to grasp if you have never used it, and I hope that I have explained it clearly. I have a blog for my campaign and all battles are recorded with photos. Below is a link to the blog, and if you look at any battle report the concept is much easier to understand


Dragon Gunner17 Dec 2022 3:06 a.m. PST

Most rulesets do not track stamina, endurance and supply as a cumulative degrading effect from use. Way too much bookkeeping for an enjoyable game that can be played in an evening.

I think it boils down to scenario design. I have two scenarios I played in years ago that modeled the need for reserves quite well.

1. WW2 East Front 1945 the German player had several low-quality infantry formations and a small but veteran mechanized reserve unit. He was tasked with holding far too much ground and had orders to prevent a breakthrough off his table edge. He spread the infantry units evenly amongst his flanks and center and dug them in. The mechanized unit was kept in reserve to deploy where a breakthrough was about to occur. In this case there was a need to actually keep a reserve if he committed everything on turn one, he might have been out maneuvered.

2. WW2 West Front Battle of the Bulge. The German player had orders to break through the American line, but he has no idea where the Americans were concentrated. The German conducted a probing attack across his whole front then assessed where a breakthrough would most likely succeed. Once that was determined the German player committed his reserve where success was most likely to occur.

Murvihill17 Dec 2022 5:53 a.m. PST

Most games I've played only have playing time for one attack before the game is over. Throwing in reserves extends the game beyond the allotted time. If grand tactical reserves are used they'd reorganize the board and start again another night. Tactically, the only games where reserves seem to be used are when the game rewards players for having a second line. Usually throwing all your troops up in column will disperse the damage and delay morale checks longer than lines.

Andy ONeill17 Dec 2022 9:49 a.m. PST

I would suggest the problem is in modelling player control of forces.
Before radios.
A commander gave out orders prior to the battle if he possibly could. Changing your mind was a bit of a problem. Once a unit was committed and headed off to do whatever you told it then you would have a job turning it round. Once in combat, pretty much all you could do is tell it to retreat. I've read several descriptions of adc being chased away by units which were in combat or nust close to enemy.
The general would often have rather a poor view of events and a significant delay between orders dispstched and received.

Reserves otoh, they are not committed to some action. Not fighting anyone. These are the forces the general could order to do stuff.

At risk of over simplifying maybe.
Committed troops – you already gave them a mission. Wave good bye. They're out your control.

Reserves. You may give them a mission. Until you commit them to some action. Then, see above.

La Belle Ruffian18 Dec 2022 1:17 p.m. PST

Murvihill – that's a good point re: the time factor, it's why I got frustrated with GdeB or GdeA (amongst others) for club nights.

Andy, good point about player control. I've been playing quite a bit of W1815 as a way to introduce people to gaming and what I particularly like is the idea of very limited player options, as well as maintaining or surrendering the initiative, if Wellington opts to use his reserves or Napoleon tries to counteract the buildup of Prussians.

Blutarski18 Dec 2022 5:40 p.m. PST

Aspern-Essling campaign
I played Charles.
My Army Reserve (cuirassier & grenadiers) was controlled by the game referee playing the role of the Aulic Council. I spent the better part of an entire day (locked in a "hang in the balance" struggle for Aspern) requesting, demanding, cajoling, begging for the release of reserves to support my threadbare front against the principal French push. All my requests and Aulic Council responses had to be conducted in written correspondence back and forth turn by turn.

I was kept sweating bullets all day until several battalions of grenadiers were finally released to me in time to help turn the tide.


MILSPEX7819 Dec 2022 4:10 a.m. PST

Good discussion troops! I enjoyed reading all your posts.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP20 Dec 2022 2:26 a.m. PST

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:

La Belle Ruffian20 Dec 2022 8:38 a.m. PST

I've run several large operational WW2 games with several levels of command. Limiting access to the main board, relying on runners for reports and recce flights (camera photos) to update maps has worked very well. Physical separation has far more impact than we might assume.

In one case I had a remote player-umpire playing political figures at the end of a real phone number who would occasionally ring for an update based on photos I would send them. If they were engaged when players wanted to request the release of troops, or a change of posture, then they had to wait. All teams had the same number, but they didn't know that until afterwards.

I do remember reading about C-in-Cs playing a board game of the battle away from the miniatures game and being asked questions/passed notes whilst they tried to win their own battle. I think if you threw in some chess clocks it could be interesting.

Wolfhag20 Dec 2022 1:51 p.m. PST

Another way to use reserves is to do a fighting withdrawal keeping your mobile units in reserve. When the enemy attack falters they'll most likely commit their reserves because of losses and friction. Then commit all your reserves at once at their weakest point or outflank them.

However, good luck having players fall back as it takes skill and a table long enough to execute the action.


ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP21 Dec 2022 12:23 a.m. PST

@Wolfhag: well, you have to be in a situation where a fighting withdrawal makes sense. Some BBB scenarios do provide such a situation, eg:
Borny-Colombey (FPW), as reported earlier this week on the 'Pushing Tin' blog: link
Beaumont (FPW)
2nd Battle of Vac (Hungarian War of Independence, 1849)
Skalitz (1866)
They do make for a challenge with a different flavour.

Mark J Wilson Supporting Member of TMP21 Dec 2022 5:32 a.m. PST

@ Wolfhag

I'd suggest breaking contact and withdrawing [without going straight to rout] whether to facilitate an ambush/counter attack or just to actually withdraw, takes real skill and many real units have tried and failed over the years.

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