Minis Workshop – Can They Retreat? Part 2

In the last post I asked a series of "can they retreat?" cases, in the context of a miniature mass warfare game, where a hypothetical routed unit is surrounded on just one side, or two, three, etc. Truth be told: The ruling on this is something that has frustrated me my entire life; I feel like I've never gotten it right, and it still pesters me today when running Book of War games. Let's look at some different minis rulebooks to see what they say.


Chainmail (3rd Ed., 1979) actually has two separate morale mechanics: one on p. 15 for post-melee morale (including effects like simply being pushed back a half move or so), and a second on p. 17 for total casualties throughout the battle (which results in immediate elimination). Rules for the former include clauses on what happens if a retreating unit contacts friendly troops (causing disorder or rout in the other unit), but nothing for contact on enemy units. The snippet above is from the second rule section, which says briefly that if "no route of retreat is open to it", then the unit surrenders instead of escaping -- but no guidance is given on what qualifies as an acceptable "route of retreat", or how complete a cordon is needed for a unit to be "surrounded". In these rules that passes as academic, because in either case the routed unit is immediately removed from the table when they fail that excess-casualty morale check.

Swords & Spells

Gygax's Swords & Spells rules was actually my first encounter with miniatures wargaming as a kid. Above you see the two cases in the morale rules there where a forced retreat can happen; in both situations, there is a one-line clause similar to Chainmail about what happens if the unit is "unable to retreat" (respectively: stand and fight at a penalty, or abject surrender). But what exactly constitutes being "unable to retreat"? That's still a raw judgement call. See also the note on the very last line: in both situations the unit "cannot change formation or face", which would seem to rule out any of the cases in the last post where there's contact on all 4 sides. Keeping that particular formation block, the routed unit would seem to be "stuck" by even a minimally wrapped-around enemy.

Battlesystem v.1

In Doug Niles' 1st version of Battlesyststem (the 1985 boxed set), he adds a little more detail to the situation than Gygax did. Here he indicates that as long as there is a gap of 1" extent -- about the width of one single figure -- than the entirety of any routing unit is allowed to escape through the bottleneck, irrespective of the size of the unit. This is actually how I myself interpreted Gygax's rule in Swords & Spells when I initially played with that ruleset. However, at some point it became deeply dissatisfying. If a relatively large unit routs, it seems nonsensical for all the figures to be able to file out through a tiny gap without the enemy being able to stop the action. Game-wise, if you added up the time for all the movements of the separate figures, it couldn't possibly happen within one turn; realism-wise, it fails to simulate "crowd crush" and panic-type situations in those sorts of bottlenecks. Also, since only a completely-surrounded unit could be stopped from escaping, it made capturing an enemy unit effectively impossible (the ability to get figures on every outer inch of a unit, without attacking and routing the target too early, is basically nil).

Battlesystem v.2

Here is Doug Niles' second take on his mass war rules for D&D (1989 perfect-bound glossy book). Seemingly sharing my dissatisfaction with the previous naive interpretation of Gygax, he's a little bit more strict here. On the one hand, he says "a routed unit cannot change frontage [as in Swords & Spells], unless that is the only way it can perform its rout movement" -- but that's just a different way of saying "a routed unit can change its frontage [the opposite of Swords & Spells]". But instead of the previous one-figure gap requirement, here you need a gap equal to "the widest stand of figures in the unit". In these rules, "stand" means a combined base of either two figures for cavalry, or three for infantry. So now that's probably about 2" or 3" wide and then a whole unit can escape. So it's a difference, but not a big one.

I should say that, looking at the preceding, there's a lot of continuity in the mass-warfare rules published by TSR. We could perform an exercises similar to "Spells Through the Ages" and track specific rules or even blocks of text that are basically copy-and-pasted forward from Chainmail, to Swords & Spells, to Battlesystem, with certain edits or expansions along the way (much like this "when do you get blocked from retreating" rule). For some contrast, let's look at the other gorilla in fantasy wargaming:

Warhammer 6th Ed.

A lot of the sensibility is the same here -- a badly-damaged unit is forced to retreat, and is in some danger of being totally destroyed ("if caught by pursuers", i.e., the overrun rule, last paragraph above). Much like Chainmail, there is a treatment of running into friendly units on the move (moving around or even through, 4th paragraph), but not of running into enemy units. Also much like Swords & Spells, the text gently suggests that for fleeing units you should "keep them in formation" (2nd paragraph), which again if enforced strictly would prevent the retreat of a unit with even one or two enemy figures on its backside.

I can't find any more detail on the rights or restrictions for retreating units than that in these 6E Warhammer rules. Again we seem mostly in a judgement-call situation about how small a gap is necessary for a large mob of creatures to escape.


Personally,  I'm pretty surprised that I can't find any more detail to this situation in any of these miniature wargame rules than that. No wonder I've been frustrated for so long. The naive interpretation of Gygax's short comment in Swords & Spells, as implemented in Battlesystem, seems unsatisfyingly generous, and doesn't seem to resemble real "crowd crunch" situations.

What do you think the best expression of the allowed-retreat rule should be? Do any of these rulebooks synch up with your intuitions from the prior blog post?


  1. Early editions of De Bellis Antiquitatis had this infamous maneuver called "mooning" where you could slide a unit sideways to cut off another's retreat, even though they were retreating into your back.

    1. Ah, yes, the Buttocks of Death. That's also possible in the fantasy game based on DBA, Hordes of the Things.

      As far as retreating goes, in HotT an element that loses a combat may be forced to recoil backwards (or it may be destroyed, or it may be forced to flee the battlefield in certain cases). However, if the element has enemies on its flank or rear, it is destroyed instead. HotT players refer to this as a friction kill.

    2. Iiiinteresting... Chainmail also has this rule "All types of troops are considered to control the space 1" on either side of themselves to stop infiltration" (p. 16). It might be in Battlesystem someplace, but not Swords & Spells, so I never actually played out the implications. I did always think that as an "interrupting" rule it seemed like a bad idea (D&D 3E 5' step/AOO). My guess would have been that the major problem would be with a rule about 1", now you'll be arguing about whether you're in or outside a 1/16" difference or whatever.

  2. I mentioned my thoughts on the last post: allow a number of figures that can fit through the gap (only if enveloped on three sides; if only two sides, the whole unit can run) each turn, the routing unit can't attack, and the enveloping unit gets to attack each turn (plus once extra when the routing unit turns to run). I'd take the Swords & Spells idea that the survivors form up two moves (plus charge bonuses) away, then allow them to attempt to rally. Failed rally means run off the board, maybe showing up with their tails between their legs at home in a campaign game, or maybe running away forever in shame (another morale test when the battle is over?).

    1. Hm, "more than two sides" is probably a better way to state it.

    2. I see... yeah that seems pretty defensible (let some escape while the others suffer more attacks each turn). I've also seen situations where the attacking player didn't want their unit committed for that much time, and so withdrew to let the routers escape at once.

    3. Yeah, if you don't want your unit committed, don't envelop the enemy. ;)

  3. @ Delta:

    Just adding onto my comment from last post: my interpretation (even of Chainmail) is informed by my 40K experience. To my mind, it doesn't matter the location of the physical model in relation to the unit in which it is engaged in melee. What matters is simply whether or not it is engaged. When a unit is forced to fall back or retreat, it moves away from the attacking unit in whatever direction is considered "safety" for the broken unit (usually, the table edge from which they initially marched). If an unengaged enemy unit lies between the broken unit and "safety" than its "route of retreat" (to use the Chainmail term) is effectively blocked...it is surrounded in the sense that it cannot face its attackers (who broke the unit) and there is no where to go (because it will run into another enemy).

    I think this would be clearer in Chainmail if there was something about enemy units in the "Contact with Another Unit" section (page 16) and not just contact with friendly units. But then Gygax was writing Chainmail in the 70s, and perhaps the idea of "static figures modeling a dynamic battlefield" was not in vogue.

    When I first started playing WH40K (with 2nd edition) there was a lot of emphasis placed on how models contacted each other...if a model's base touched multiple enemy bases it could attack all (this was a valid tactic in an edition dominated by super-heroic figures). With 3rd and 4th editions, the role of "superheroes" was greatly reduced and emphasis was placed back on infantry units and this is when we start seeing the "grand abstractions." Is a unit in contact with another? Then they are ALL "engaged" with each other. Just because a tree stand only has three model trees doesn't mean the thing is literally "three trees." The models represent something.

    Individual beardy placement of static figures shouldn't be rewarded; tactical placement of units (along with lucky or heroic dice rolls) should be. It's not about the placement of your cavalry models engaging the orcs...it's about the line of pikemen standing between them and their safe retreat.

    1. Interesting -- I don't see I wouldn't agree, but I'm a little unclear on your final conclusions. Like it would be great if you went back to the last post and said exactly which cases you thought they could retreat and where they couldn't? (esp. cases 4 & 5).

      One other little thing (although I don't think it makes a difference to the current question) is that as I read WH 6th Ed. the figure scale is actually 1:1 (1 figure = 1 man), whereas the TSR games are all 1:10 or 1:20 scale (1 figure = 10 or 20 men). Which is to say my intuition is that the figures are even *more* abstracted than what you're saying above for WH.

    2. @ Delta:

      See my comments on the earlier post.

      RE Abstraction

      Yeah, that just emphasizes what I'm saying (at least it does for me). When one model represents 10 or 20 or 100 men, then the placement of the model means even less...the (imaginary) unit is presumably mingling with the (imaginary) soldiers of the contacting unit in a swirling melee.

      It's like worrying about facing. In a historical battle of lined-up phalanxes, facing is important prior to engagement ('cause you have to get all those marching spear-men pointed in the right direction...and keep those shields turned towards the archers!). But once the "clash" starts, all bets are off and the result of dice rolls really help describe the narrative of whether or not models are "holding the line," not the actual facing of models.

    3. Yeah that's a coherent stance -- if maybe I wouldn't go quite as far as you in practice. I do kind of like having the opportunity for a one-round charge at someone's flank or rear, even if on successive turns everyone effectively turns wherever and there's no further bonus or effect.

    4. @ Delta:

      You could still have the flank/rear charge...like I said, facing could (if you wanted) still be important PRIOR to the engagement.

      Once the orcs (or whoever) retreat, they become unengaged, and facing again becomes important (they'll have their backs to unit that broke them). It's up to YOUR rules (system,, house, whatever) as to when the victorious unit "forms up ranks" again (consolidates, etc.) and checks their own facing.

    5. Yeah, okay, that's pretty close to what effectively happens in my game already.

  4. For allowed-retreat I enjoy an Epic 40k approach.

    From section 1.13.3 "Withdrawals": Withdrawal moves may be made in any direction, but if a unit ends the [move] within 15cm of the enemy, it is destroyed (it is killed while trying to escape!). Units may ignore enemy zones of control while making a withdrawal move but may not move directly over enemy units.

    I would rather interpret the actual 1 inch space as an abstraction of where the units would end up, hence the rout. In other words, the victor's models are a few seconds into the future while the loser's model are a few seconds in the past. They can escape through the gap because the gap doesn't exist yet ... it is about to exist.

    If they don't run far enough away then they are eradicated. If they do then both groups reform to sort of realign the timeline, to reconcile the out-of-sync that I described above.

    1. Hmmmm... a somewhat hard interpretation for me to digest. What if the attacker has been poised there in that 1" gap situation for numerous turns, beating on the defenders before they routed?

    2. Agreed.

      Allowed to retreat seems difficult to resolve. If you haven't checked Kings of War they deal with this well. The rules are free from Mantic's site. Atleast, they used to be. Here is the relevant stuff:

      After every combat the attackers are repulsed 1 inch. This frees the defenders to either a) attack in their turn and then subsequently get repulsed 1 inch after inflicting casualties or b) leave.

      This gives fast and flying units a true sense of their speed. They quickly reform and get out of dodge, beyond the range of an attack in the following turn (maybe). Infantry can try but will most likely get attacked in subsequent turns. They just aren't fast enough, and shouldn't be.

      This is all relevant because there is no retreat. Each formation takes damage until they rout. The formation is at full strength until it is at zero strength, a binary system. This eliminates finicky rules for retreat but still gives room for maneuvers and flanking and gives a good sense of speed. This system would be impossible without the 1 inch pushback rule. I feel as though it represents what we want to represent and gives the game good flow.

      Allowed to retreat, I fear, seems like it fits into the narrative that we are trying to create but ultimately it is not a good game mechanic as we can apply the same narrative to KoW.

    3. Hmmm, that seems pretty unique.

  5. ok I'll try it again.

    One thing to think about is do units that have special movement abilities going to have different routing rules. Say if units can fly, should they not be able to fly off into the sky?

    I'm not sure how flying units are supposed to interact with non-flying units in BOW. When do ground units get to attack a flying unit? Say a Dragon is zooming around the field. He should be able to finish moving or move through another unit, right? Can that unit attack it?

    Perhaps routing behavior should partly be determined by how bad they fail their morale roll? The worse the result the more mindless the escape attempt? Also should Heroes have the ability to rally routing troops?

    1. I totally agree with the flying stuff... I didn't deal with that properly in BOW and basically the most broken game I've played was because of that. I definitely think that routed flyers should be able to escape into the sky no matter what.

      The way I play the attacks is that while dragons can fly over another unit freely, they have to land (or effectively so: get at ground level) to attack, breathe fire, or activate a fear effect. Partly that's for gameplay simplicity; partly the scale demands it (effectively in base-to-base contact like any other figure). That's something I should make clearer in a revision -- really good point.

    2. One area of complication re: flyers is with the situation of flyers v. flyers. Probably still able to rout relatively freely, but flyers are able to follow up where non-flyers are not. So, not too complicated after all, perhaps.

    3. I'd like to add that odd environments should be considered as well. What about armies underwater, Sahuagin vs Aquatic Elves for example. Or battles on the astral plane. I'd think similar rules to creatures that can fly could be applied in these cases.

      There is the interesting scenario for odd environments and air battles where a group is completely surrounded, on all four sides and above and below. Completely swarmed. Would not they suffer the same problems as the surrounded units in the conventional ground battle?

    4. Well, that's really interesting to think about. At the moment the only case in my wargame where that comes up is with Dragons flying around. Has anyone ever done mass battles underwater!? :-o

      However, I would tend to think that an airborne battle would not be prone to get "boxed in" like that. Pretty much everyone has to be swooping and in motion all the time. There's no friction with the ground to keep people in a line and taking up space the same way; and in some sense there's "a lot more room" topologically in 3D than 2D. That's my knee-jerk reaction to it.

  6. another thing to think about is with these mixed environments, how exactly do you calculate the costs. If Sahuagin get advantages in the water but not on land which environment should be used to calculate costs? Should there be 2 costs, one for water battles and one for land battles?

    1. That's a really good point. In my current game I've got one single table to produce random terrain, and all the costs are balanced against that. If setting was chosen instead of some random distribution it would be enormous work to deal with that (and pricing stuff as-is is already 90% of the work).

      I tend to broadly assume that the next step up would some campaign play, where you're sort of gambling on where the conflicts next arise (but in theory could be anywhere). So actually it would help balance things that you'd probably design units good for your own home turf (a natural added defender advantage). But I've never put that in practice: to say nothing of a grand land-sea-air-amphibious campaign! Holy smokes!