Flagging Spirits – Morale Indicators in Miniature Wargames

05 August 2021
A colourful ‘old school’ morale indicator

Header Image: ECW games have lots of flags – so why not make them mean more than just decoration? This lovely game staged by Edinburgh Wargamers was seen at Partizan some years ago. Photo HH.

Arthur Harman makes some colourful proposals for ways of recording the state of mind of your miniature soldiery using something less obtrusive than the standard methods involving pen, paper or obvious markers. 

Nothing so destroys the illusion that one is commanding an army in battle, to my mind, than the constant record-keeping that distracts the wargame general’s attention from the carefully constructed spectacle of the miniature battlefield. Yet, since it is by abstruse mathematical calculations alone that wargamers endeavour to animate their lead soldiery, some records are inevitable: a necessary evil if the commanders’ mental faculties are not to be exhausted by elephantine feats of memory, as they struggle to recall the morale of Newcastle’s ‘Whitecoats’ or the casualties suffered by ‘Skippon’s Brave Boys’ during that last push of pike. Every wargamer’s aim must be to reduce this irksome ‘quill-driving’ to a minimum, and to resist the tendency of the intrusive paperwork to invade the model countryside whereon his miniature army is locked in combat.

In the early days of wargaming, a unit’s strength was simply represented by the number of toy soldiers in its ranks, and its losses from artillery or musket fire and hand to hand combat by their removal.1 Later, there was a trend towards calculating casualties in real men instead, recording them on a chart, and only removing a toy soldier when that number – often some awkward number, such as 33 – had been inflicted upon the unit.2 Some American wargame rules, on the other hand, proposed aesthetic abominations like ‘casualty caps’ or plastic rings upon the heads of the troops to indicate that losses had been suffered, without removing the carefully painted toy soldiers.

Terry Wise proposed a simple morale system:

“Cavalry and infantry must be led by an officer when advancing. If infantry lose all officers whilst advancing they must be turned to face the rear and retreat on the next move, continuing to retreat until another officer is sent to lead them. Once cavalry have begun a charge they cannot be halted by loss of officers, but if they are not charging when they lose their officers they must turn and retreat on the next move, continuing to retreat until another officer is sent to lead them.”3

More recently, many rules have denoted a unit’s combat effectiveness and/or morale by one numerical rating, similar to those employed in many boardgames, and refrained from removing toy soldiers altogether. While the latter does spare the innumerate wargamer the strain of mental computation, or the necessity of spending his precious cash upon a pocket calculator, rather than upon another battalion, it has but simplified, not completely eradicated, the tedious paperwork that minds capable of extraordinary tactical finesse find so debilitating.

This article proposes some ideas that may enable miniature regiments to display their troops’ morale, combat effectiveness or whatever, without being pursued across the wargame table
by incongruous heaps of casualty figures, tiddlywinks (at one time, small blue tiddlywinks were the preferred way of representing disorganisation at my local club) or inordinately large, paper ‘field-signs’. The observant reader will have deduced already from my choice of historical examples that this system is intended for periods when generals were wont to command from the saddle, rather from behind a desk in a château...

My search for some feature that would be clearly visible and identifiable from behind my regiments (the wargamer’s usual viewpoint – save when his troops are in headlong flight, in which case a morale indicator is somewhat superfluous!), yet remain at least partially hidden from an opponent, was soon over. One solution that occurred to me was to use the position of the standard bearer or colour party to denote the unit’s current status. Movement of the figures to reflect changes in status could be disguised as adjusting the unit’s dressing, but would generally be camouflaged by the constant repositioning of the figures that takes place during any wargame. Even that bad habit many wargamers have of picking up the figures to admire or criticise the painting, or to identify the manufacturer, could be turned to advantage – the most observant and suspicious opponent would be unlikely to remark that a colour bearer had not been replaced in exactly the same position...

Clearly, it would be inappropriate to simply move the entire colour party within the deployed unit, as this would be bound to attract attention and would, moreover, require frequent repositioning of sub-units, bases or individual figures, though it would not be impossible. One could, for example, place the colour party in the centre of the line when the unit’s morale was steady; to the right of the centre when morale was high; and further to the left of the centre as its morale deteriorated.

The system must be SIMPLE and EASILY MEMORIZED; altering the colour party’s position in the manner described above would not be simple, because of the necessity of moving many of a unit’s figures each time a change of status occurred. If, however, the colour party was placed behind the unit when it was deployed for battle, or alongside the unit when it was in marching column, changing the colour party’s position relative to the centre of the unit could be effected quite easily.

Such a system would, of course, not be secure, because it would enable the commander of opposing troops to deduce the status of enemy units. But would that be unreasonable? Experienced officers looked for tell-tale signs that enemy troops were wavering and on the point of breaking; this system would enable wargamers to do the same.

Where a regiment or battalion has only one or two colours – the case in most armies from the eighteenth century onwards – a more subtle, and hence less likely to be detected, method would be to alter the direction in which the colour is flying relative to the unit concerned. If one’s rules use only three or four significant morale or combat effectiveness codes, these may be linked to the position of the standard or colour on a simple key, which will serve the absent-minded or amnesiac wargamer as an aide-mémoire. For example: if morale is high, the colour flies towards the unit’s right flank; if it is steady, towards the rear, and if poor, towards the left flank.

Where a greater number of status codes is employed, or a reducing numerical combat effectiveness factor, a unit’s condition might be represented by moving the direction in which the colour is flying around an imaginary clock-face, ‘twelve o’clock’ being the direction in which the unit is facing at that moment. The changes of alignment would be quite subtle, and so rather difficult for an opponent to observe or interpret correctly, yet easily seen by the player as he looks down on his own troops. This system would introduce an entirely realistic degree of uncertainty into attempting to deduce the condition of enemy troops from their appearance.

Readers may have noticed that I referred to the English Civil Wars in my introduction; it was while devising a set of simple rules for that particular period for my pupils that I originally considered using each regiment’s colours to indicate its morale, inspired partly by the company colours carried by both Royalist and Parliamentarian regiments of Foot and the troop standards of the Horse. Now, whilst it is unlikely that many wargamers will actually deploy ten colour parties per full-strength regiment of Foot, it does not seem unreasonable to portray the ‘colourful’ (in both senses of the word!) appearance of English Civil Wars units by having three or four colours flying above each body of troops.

Let us assume each regiment will have three colours: those of the Lieutenant-Colonel, the Major and one of the Captains. Now, according to the most common system practised in the English Civil Wars, each of the Captains’ colours bore a number of devices equal to his seniority in the regiment, so the First Captain’s colour bore one device, the Second Captain’s, two, and so on.

Why not use the number of devices on the Captain’s colour to indicate whether the regiment is composed of veterans, trained bandsmen or raw recruits and unwilling conscripts?

Veteran Cornish foot, for example, could use the First Captain’s colour; The London Trained Band regiments, the Third Captain’s, and raw recruits, the Sixth Captain’s. A couple of spare Captains’ colours would allow the pikemen and musketeers to appear as higher or lower quality troops in other games, or one could prepare different paper colours to fit on the colour pole when required.

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The positioning of these colours in relation to each other, and/or to the formed troops, could easily represent the regiment’s condition. Thus, for example, the Lieutenant- Colonel’s colour of a regiment which is fresh, and unscathed, might be posted on the right of the central block of pikemen; one which has suffered some casualties could post the Major’s colour in that position instead, and one which had lost many men, the Captain’s colour.

This positioning of the colour-bearers could be combined with the direction in which the colours were flying to indicate both casualties and morale. Thus, the Lieutenant-Colonel’s colour of a regiment which is fresh, and unscathed, with high morale would be posted on the right of the central block of pikemen, flying to the right; a battalia of veterans, however, whose morale remains steady, despite suffering heavy casualties, would deploy the First Captain’s colour to the right of the pikes with the colour flying to the rear.

If one wanted to represent many different states, the sequence of colours within the group could be keyed to various morale or combat effectiveness grades, although this might be rather too complex to remember in the heat of the moment during an exciting wargame without recourse to a chart. Even using only three colours, there are six possible sequences that should suffice for all but the most complex rules.

Alternatively, though at the risk of introducing further complexity, each colour might be used to indicate a different aspect of the unit’s condition: the Lieutenant-Colonel’s colour might denote Morale; the Major’s colour, Ammunition (when the musketeers’ ammunition is exhausted, simply remove that company’s Ensign from the table), and a Captain’s colour (which must remain present at all times to show troop quality), Strength, for example. Under this system, each colour would be rotated, relative to the troops, as described above.

It may be objected that any of the systems described above will simply enable one’s opponent to deduce the exact condition of each and every enemy unit throughout the game, since he, too, will be using the system to record the condition of his own troops. Now, obviously both players will be aware that unit morale, combat effectiveness or whatever, is represented by the regimental colours, but if they are each using a different code with a separate chart, it will not be particularly easy to keep track of the enemy’s condition, and where armies are similarly organised – as was the case in the English Civil Wars – commanders should be able to form a reasonable estimate of their opponents’ state from their appearance.

What about other historical periods? Roman legions could employ a centurion, aquilifer or signifer and a musician, and other ‘Ancient’ armies, a similar combination of figures. A Zulu impi might have three commanders with differently coloured shields. In each case, the three figures may be arranged in six different ways. Where the combatants are drawn from widely differing cultures, as in many ‘Ancient’ or ‘Colonial’ games, then each side might simply employ a different system, the details of which would be unknown to the opposing players.

Instead of three colour bearers, one colour bearer, an officer and a musician will suffice for most eighteenth and nineteenth century ‘Horse and Musket’ armies. The positioning of the figures will indicate whether the unit has suffered casualties; the direction the colour is flying, morale, as described above.

Another idea, in wargames where the number of orders the army commander may give in a turn is limited by the score of a die, such as De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) and its derivatives, so that units have to be ‘activated’ by allocating command points, would be to place officer figures behind those troops that had been ‘activated’, removing them when their orders for that turn had been executed. If using rules which only permit units within a specified distance or ‘Command Radius’ to receive orders, the absence of the officer figure would indicate that troops were ‘out of command’ and unable to act. Removing the figure of the musician could show that the troops’ morale has deteriorated to the point where they must be rallied before they can take any further part in the battle.

Such a system could also, for example, easily be extended to cover artillery batteries. Many rules already use the number of toy soldiers in the gun crew to signify whether a model artillery piece represents a horse or foot battery and/or the number of pieces in the battery. An artilleryman is removed when a gun is silenced, whether by damage from enemy roundshot or because insufficient men remain unscathed to service it. One could take this a step further, by devising a chart that shows how the position of one member of the crew – preferably the one with the rammer, as he is easily recognised – who is the last to be removed when the final gun is silenced, relative to the piece could indicate the morale of the surviving members of the battery. (See overleaf.)

Cavalie Mercer, then a second captain, commanded G Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery in the Hundred Days’ Campaign following Napoleon’s return from exile. In his memoirs, he recalled how his troop was unable to participate in the general advance of the Anglo-Allied army at the close of the Battle of Waterloo, because he had lost so many of his draught-horses: “... We were congratulating ourselves on the happy results of the day, when an aide-de-camp rode up, crying ‘Forward, sir! – forward! It is of the utmost importance that this movement should be supported by artillery!’ at the same time waving his hat much in the manner of a huntsman laying on his dogs. I smiled at his energy, and, pointing to the remains of my poor troop, quietly asked, ‘How, sir?’ A glance was sufficient to show him the impossibility, and away he went.

“Our situation was indeed terrible: of 200 fine horses with which we had entered the battle, upwards of 140 lay dead, dying or severely wounded. Of the men, scarcely two-thirds of those necessary for four guns remained, and these so completely exhausted as to be totally incapable of further exertion...Our guns and carriages were, as before mentioned, altogether in a confused heap, intermingled with dead and wounded horses, which it had not been possible to disengage from them.”4

To reflect such losses in the gun-teams, the number of draught horses in front of the model limber could also be reduced to show how many guns the surviving horses would be able to remove, should the battery have to withdraw or change position.

I hope you will find these suggestions worth pursuing and developing to suit your own tastes, armies, rules and games.


1 Little Wars by HG Wells; Wargames by Donald F Featherstone; Charge! by Brigadier PeterYoung & Lieutenant-Colonel JP Lawford

2 Bruce Quarrie’s Napoleonic rules, from Napoleon’s Campaigns in Miniature, for example

3 Terry Wise, Introduction to Battle Gaming, pp 97-98

4 Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, General Cavalie Mercer, Greenhill Books, 1985, pp 180-181. Gareth Glover has recently suggested, in Waterloo: Myth and Reality (Pen & Sword, 2014) that Mercer’s vivid account is somewhat exaggerated.

This article originally appeared in issue 385 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.


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