Saturday 15 April 2023

When is a rout a real rout?

Over the past couple of weeks, this issue has twice come into my thinking. Firstly, I am presently beavering away, working on a campaign system for a series of figure games and have been trying to determine the point at which unit cohesion will collapse and the soldiers reach that desperate point of either disorderly retreat or fleeing for their lives.

Secondly, while playing a boardgame, the issue of what exactly rout or panic is, cropped up and how should that determine the actual path of retreat.

So this is something that seems to cross the boardgame / tabletop genres.

The question that I have been left with is, what does the individual designer mean by rout and has it become a weakened term that covers a number of different levels of state of mind from simply not have confidence in training or environment, through to absolute panic?

The term ‘rubber routers’ has been around for many years and refers to units that get a rout result in combat and ‘run away 3 hexes’ or so, then they recover by a morale check in the next turn and a turn or two later are back fighting at the front line at normal capacity.

My own thoughts on routing are that units are fleeing in blind panic, with self preservation kicking in and they are unlikely to be ‘restored’ at all, or perhaps not until nightfall or say at the end of a battle etc, when the immediate danger has passed.

So when I look at the occurrence of rubber routers example, I just think the designer has used the wrong term for what is actually happening to that unit.

In the same vein, there are, or at least should be, in the designers tool box, a subtle difference between disorder and disrupted and between retire and retreat and yet each of those pairings often tend to sit at the same level of ‘effect’ in our list of combat results, with a sort of inter-changeability between the terms, but that we generally understand as being what they are meant to mean.

One of my favoured napoleonic boardgames is the Jours de Gloire system. Now on first impression that suffers the rubber router syndrome and I know that a fellow blogger (VH) has largely abandoned the system because of this.

When looking at this game, turns are typically 90 minutes long. So at best, if a router runs away for 3 hexes and then manages via morale to stop routing, it will become disordered instead. It will then take another turn via morale to become ordered IF it passes a morale test and then another turn before it can start moving towards the front light to re-engage. 

At best, this is taking 3 - 4 turns for better trained troops, so all of that sits in a timeframe of occurring over 4½ - 6 hours of battle time. 

Additionally, the unit might fail any one of those the morale tests and not recover and then at the end of each turn be subject to further automatic rout retreats, keeping it out of the game for longer.

So is that a rout or something else?

One interesting point is that when ‘routers’ pass through a village or town in this system, the player can chooses to halt them there or let them carry on routing.

To show where I hang my hat, a few years ago, I designed a pair of 1066 games. As the battle progresses and units are lost, those units standing next to the unit just lost, must take a rout test. This is based upon a die roll, plus the number of casualties already lost by that class of unit or its formation. The greater the number of units lost, the higher the chance of routing and once a unit routs, there is little chance of stopping from leaving the battlefield.

The main influence of this mechanic is that by mid battle, a few units here and there are starting to rout away, but that as the battle continues, larger numbers are put to flight, until large gaps start appearing and the collapse of the army becomes a real and apparent thing. So for me, obviously, anything much short of this is probably best not described as a rout - though this is just a view, not a statement of fact, as I am not in any qualified position to know for sure.

In a recent game, we had the issue of how does a unit rout, or should I say, what is or should be the ‘deliberate’ direction of rout. Unless the rules are very tight on this sort of thing, it allows a player the freedom to do some fancy footwork that has the unit being very helpful and courteous to the general and other troops by not routing as the crow flies and consequently not crashing into them and causing them to also take rout / disorder / cohesion tests, or whatever terminology is on offer, to create potential domino effects.

Routers did and could sweep other wavering units away with them, but we come back to the design intent. Is the designer really advocating rout in the true and maximum sense of the word or something less than that and how would that best be described or rather, how should it be described?

Underpinning this is the question of how do routers naturally behave (I can only be guided by what I have read and what I assume), bearing in mind that the unit’s collective clear thinking and training have gone to various degrees and the animal instinct to survive has kicked in (if we really are talking about rout). 

So do routers only move in one direction in the knowledge of certain escape, do they tend to run towards friends, are they inclined to run after others who are already running (herding), do they take the line of least resistance and will they always, above all else, increase the distance between themselves and the enemy ….. even to the detriment of their own forces?

I am more than happy to have units take the shortest direction to (say) a supply point or line of communication, even if that has them crashing into a load of friendly units along the way, but I am there for the simulation, not for the sake of the game.

Please, put your answers on a post card - enquiring minds would like to know.

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  1. If the unit recovers then it fell back in some disorder. I think a genuine rout involves some troops throwing away anything that impedes their escape, such as weapons. Others will throw in the towel, not joining any rally. Le Feu Sacre rules had routed units acquire a permanent disorder marker, to the dismay of one of my gaming buddies. Other rules (including my home brew work-in-progress) have routing units lose stands/figures each turn they rout, so that rallying soon becomes moot. Other rules have the routed unit removed from the table after causing whatever disruption on the turn it routs.

    This last is the easiest, making games move faster. Otherwise I prefer one of the other two solutions.

  2. Good point about the throwing away of weapons. I also like the Lardie rule for acquiring a permanent disorder if returning to the fight, to reflect their diminished enthusiasm and any loss in the command structure and / or their authority.

  3. There are so many rulesets available that I subscribe to "What the author said", without getting too fussed about their selection of words.

    Linguistically: Rout is a verb used in the present tense. It has no bearing on a units future recovery.

    From a game feel: Units running away, and returning at or near full strength seem like a problem with the rules. I'd expect a unit that routed and recovered to operate at reduces strength / power / efficiency.

    I rather like the way Irregular Wars handles morale failure. It's quick, simple and decisive.
    There are two degrees of poor morale:
    Wavering: the unit retreats a little and cannot move into contact with enemy. It demoralises friends it collides with during that withdrawl. Wavering units can be rallied, through this consumes a lot of command resource.
    Broken: I assume some of the men are dead, and others running away. Rearward movement is not plotted, instead friends within a fixed radius of a destroyed unit suffer losses. Broken units will not come back,

    Were a battle has bogged down into an exhausting melee, the demoralisation of friends often results in a chain reaction as breaking units cause nearby waverers to break, and so on..

    We've come a long way from old style ten minute morale tests with fifteen factors, several requiring careful measuring.

    1. Hi Steve, Linguistically .. I enjoyed that point and since recovery is often by morale test of some description, then one can expect the better quality units to return faster ….. so perhaps their rout was a different experience than that say of Landwehr.

      I very much like the idea of splitting what might generally be called rout, into tow sub-categories of say Wavering and Broken, that strikes me as the perfect solution, with broken not coming back. I think the problem is with rules that use rout to in effect explain both of those conditions (wavering and broken).

  4. We use the Fire & Fury rules adapted to battalion level for Napoleonics & colonials, and it incorporates the morale cascade very well, within the manouevre D10 roll each activated unit takes. The fresh-worn-spent concept is great. There is no separate morale test phase.

    In my own WW2-modern rules, where you activate by alternating platoons/companies, we have retire, fall back, retreat and rout. Routed units are simply removed from table (or vehicles abandoned), they're gone from the game. In a campaign setting you would get these back if they are nearer their own friends than to the enemy, otherwise they surrender. Morale tests are done as they are needed as combat is resolved, so again, there is no separate 'morale phase with 30 factors'.

    We have a general rule that retreating units must move directly away from the enemy that is charging them, then move towards their baseline (or denoted supply point).

  5. I like the idea of four result types of retire / fall back / retreat and rout as they look like they would give a much finer / nuanced indication of a units response than rules that try to cover that range with just 2 results, typically retreat and rout.

    One would think that the concept of retreating AWAY from the threat would be universal, but I have played a boardgame in which it is possible for a unit to RETREAT FORWARDS and it is sold as almost a system virtue! I just can’t bring myself to want to play that design again.

    Even when a system does not ‘demand’ it, I typically try to keep my units together with the rest of their formation (i.e. respecting organisational hierarchy) and will always retreat backwards … even if it invites disaster! Anything less than that and one may as well be playing Ludo :-)

  6. I think of rout as the game being up and no way back rout/broken as it were, disorder, wavering etc seem recoverable but to me a rout is throw away weapons and run away and survive, do not pass go and come back as a revived unit!
    Best Iain

    1. Yes, I would have all of that! There are plenty of terms available to show ‘less than rout’, but ‘Rout’ does seem a regular default, only for troops to re-appear.

  7. Norm, this is a topic ripe for analysis, over-analysis, and divining designer intent and use of terminology. While we may all have our own interpretation and notion of the meaning of these morale states, in the final assessment, gamers must rely upon the designer/developer to impart what these terms mean and how they are integrated into the game engine as a whole. Some designers do this well; some do not.

    As for your example of routing and returning in JdG, being combat ineffective for a minimum of 4-6 hours seems pretty much done for the day to me. I could see this considered as routed or broken, couldn’t you?

    1. By the way, I like your label for this topic!

    2. Yes, I think 4 - 6 hours out is as good as ‘out’ needs to be, though I do like Vtsaogames suggestion that such units that return to the fray of the same battle should have a disadvatage, perhaps a penalty on all future morale checks etc.

  8. There is the example of D'Erlon's Corps at Waterloo. The 2 central divisions were routed by British cavalry about 2 pm, with several thousand prisoners taken. Before 6 pm the Corps was back at it, pressing with skirmishers along the ridgeline, and the left flank division (reinforced by a right flank brigade) managing to take La Haye Sainte. They didn't have enough gas left to exploit this. Napoleon was busy arranging the counter-attack on Plancenoit, so the chance passed. But half the corps was routed, and they came back (in damaged form) in under 4 hours and managed to put Wellington's line in extremis. Perhaps this is the effect of Napoleon on the field. Wellington said his presence was worth 40,000 troops. This does amplify his own accomplishment.

    1. The ‘Corps’ back in action - I assume that had more to do with the good ordered divisions within the Corps, rather than much to do with those divisions that had previously been routed?

  9. I'm with Iain on this, a rout means your unit is past the point of no return and is gone for good. I have never been a fan of a rallying routers rule, although we have done it for smaller Black Powder games to make the game last longer at times.

  10. Hi Phil, yep, gone for good, within the time frame of most of the games that we play seems right. I have a few boardgames that cover two days of battles and some of those allow the night period to be a time when units can re-organise etc and for me, that seems the appropriate time for that sort of thing to happen.

  11. Always an interesting one this and one piece of terminology missed is the unit was broken ( routed ?) having finished reading a number of accounts, diaries letters etc of the action at Quatre Bras there are a number of references to units being broken and running. A number of these are successfully rallied ( particularly around Quatre Bras - your reference to buildings) and then return to action. But as you say this takes time and it is also clear that in the rally there has been some degradation of the unit following the break. So some element of a rally with either additional loss or other penalty would seem appropriate.
    I feel ( just my own opinion) that routs and breaks were perhaps more detrimental in the earlier periods with the abandonment of shield etc before a weapon - depending on weapon type. Finally of course, particularly in board games, I also think it depends on formation size so where a counter represents a brigade or so then the rubber rally may be more appropriate with brigade cohesion having been lost, a formation lost causing other units to fall back until order is restored.
    When I used to game with Charles Grant his base level is still the 50% rule ( can be varied for special formations) I.e. once an a unit has lost 50% they cease to be an effective force and are forced to withdraw. But in addition to that cohesiveness is represented through is Officer structure in a unit (remember units are 48 figures plus command points) so if command structure is lost then units once they start to take casualties and are forced to take morale may suddenly find themselves becoming more ‘brittle’ with the increased likelihood of becoming disordered, retreating or worst case routing.
    Sorry for the ramble but I don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution.

  12. Hi Graham, some interesting points there. Interested in your reading for Quatre Bras, as there are good examples there of the short distance routed and being able to return to battle in a fairly short time frame. Though whether we should think of those instances as true rout is the area that I am stuck on.

    Also re the point of ancient / medievals routing, it would seem that many of their battles only lasted some two hours or so, so perhaps that sort of time frame would be too short to see soldiers return to cohesive units.

    Your comment on brigade sized formations in boardgames did make me pause for thought as many of those represent say 3 - 5 regiments, so a ‘short’ rout may perhaps be reflecting that just one or two elements within the brigade actually routed, though perhaps because of that, their performance should then attract a penalty.

    The 50% rule seem a fair point at which a unit or force should consider itself non-effective. In Sword & Spear (figures), this is the point of army disintegration and in the Eagles Series (Hexasim), the point at which a corps sized formation goes demoralised.

    48 figure units … nice :-)

  13. My thoughts for what they're worth:

    Units don’t flee. Men flee. I suggest any routing unit will comprise three categories of men. 1. Men who have panicked irretrievably and are beyond rallying during the period of the action being represented. 2. Men who have decided they need to run away from the immediate threat but could be persuaded to rally later. 3. Men in subunits or groups that are still formed and disciplined but, seeing categories 1 and 2 fleeing and exposing them to too much threat, fall back in good order, perhaps covering the retreat of the rest to some degree. If your unit is a battalion, some companies are likely to be in category 3; if it is a brigade, a battalion or two, etc.

    As to the direction of flight: I suggest priority #1 is “away”, thus dictated by the axis of the enemy attack causing the rout; then priority #2 is “safety”, which might be friendly units, or friendly cover, or towards home.

    As to whether routed units should be allowed to rally or just removed from the board: depends on your definition of routed. It also depends a lot on the quality of the unit, especially the quantity and quality of officers and NCOs. More and better of those means more resilient units, more likely to rally and become combat-effective again.

    But even poor quality units can be rallied and return to the fray, given the right leadership. I’d cite a case from the Second Battle of Komárom (1849) where four raw Hungarian battalions were broken by an Austrian attack and fled towards the centre of their entrenched camp. The Hungarian commander-in-chief, Görgei, had two guns fire grapeshot at the routers, along with a volley from some infantry from the reserve, followed up by hussars. This stopped the rout and drove the routers back into the line of battle again. (There is an allegation that Görgei slew two fleeing officers with his own hand.) It can be done.

    But how a ruleset should handle that is another question: some allow repeated attempts, others a one-shot chance, others none at all. Any of those could be the right answer depending on taste and on what type of game you want.

  14. Hi Chris, that is an interesting example re the Hungarian battalions, the persuader being grapeshot!

    I can only imagine this, but I assume that what the man does in front of you and your immediate left and right, might have the biggest influence on your own actions.

    The point is well made about larger organisations in which one component may rout in the fullest meaning of the word, whilst another might retire.

    My feelings on this is that once the designer decides how, when and why units will involuntary break contact - then they need to find the correct word to describe that, so is a unit really routing, or is it (say) falling back and wavering, because the difference is significant.

    If a player knows a rout is a rout, then they will likely be more responsive (I feel) to having the unit panic move directly backwards, with all of the crashing into units that that entails, but just a ‘falling back’ gives the player, rightly or wrongly, latitude to adopt some fancy footwork.

    My target here are boardgame rules that are not tight enough to underwrite design intent and leaves room for gamey manoeuvre.

  15. Hi Norm, I am really only commenting to be polite, as almost everything has been said!
    The crux of the issue really just seems to be semantics ie the over use of the term rout to describe more than one type of reaction to combat.
    If troops were genuinely routing, they probably would be unfit for combat for the rest of the typical table top battle. But in many instances, I think the term is used when it should be pull back, retreat or retire disordered etc. These terms can all come with their own soecific requirements...routers should go in a straight line away from the cause of this rout initially, then head towards the nearest friendly table edge. Retreat might pass around friendly units but end up with their backs to the enemy, retire or pull back would end up still facing the enemy etc.
    For many years, most rules I played included the potential for domino effect "routing" ie, every unit within X mm of the routers, also had to test...sometimes, half a dozen units which, seconds before, had been in perfect order, were headed rearwards....roll half a dozen 1's, and this is the result! We don't really do this any more under the house rules we generally use for large group games, and I think that's probably a good thing...I am not sure why several battalions of perfectly happy troops would all suddenly flee, just because they saw one unit take a battering from the enemy?
    The recovery from rout is more really depends on the time scale of the game. In your board games, if every turn is an hour or two, then allowing a unit to be restored to some firm of order in three or four turns seems perfectly reasonable. Likewise, if the term rout has been misused, a unit that has been given a bloody nose and temporarily pushed back, could be reordered nd led back into the fight in a relatively short period.
    My last thought is often do trained troops actually "rout"? They fall back, retire and retreat for sure, but these are all deliberate manoeuvres, made under orders from their officers and NCO's I think genuine "sauve qui peut" routs are probably rarer than we imagine, and if they occur, then probably the unit routing should just be removed from the game, if playing on a table with figures.

  16. Hi Keith, yes, I agree, though I think there are two principal aspects to the issue of rout, the first is, as you say, about the description of how a unit reacts to combat i.e. rout or retire etc, but a designer having determined what rout is, should write rules that are descriptive and restrictive enough, that both players are certain of how a unit should rout and not be able to weaken that result by ‘routing’ a unit in a way / direction that causes least disruption to the rest of the army.

    I have seen some games use a system that allows the attacker to move the retreating / routing unit .. which is much less likely to be nice and safe rout path! Good :-)

  17. A very interesting question you pose Norm. I always thought of a rout being troops fleeing the battle in disorder, but it also requires their opponents to follow up to ensure the rout is complete. Rules may not always show the need for victorious troops to still be actively involved in routing their opponents.

  18. Hi Peter, good point on the connection between rout and pursuit, I know of some examples, I am thinking ECW, in which rout of the defender was almost as bad for the attacker, in those instances when the attacker pursued off the field and were then not themselves available on the battlefield to ensure the total victory.

    1. Certainly in the ECW the risk to losing cavalry following on after routed units was not uncommon.

  19. Much has already been covered, and some of it is down to how much book keeping you want. Do you really want a 'rallied' counter on every unit which has been recovered from rout? Fine for a dozen units, less so for scores of unit counters. I view rout as a catastrophic loss of cohesion, irrecoverable in normal game time outside of some sort of recovery phase (overnight?). Anything else is a repulse, recoil, fall back or something less catastrophic. I like the differentiation of these things in Horse, Foot and Guns. Iirc in one of the many iterations of HFG, routed units get one, and only one, chance to recover before they are removed for good. It takes PIPs to do this. Perhaps representing the general giving them a whiff of grapeshot as in Chris example above.

    1. Hi Martin, the one only chance to recover seems like a good idea. In a recent game, we had an army general in the rear, with the sole task of stopping routs and returning units back to play, so while he was busy doing that, I’m not sure who was commanding the army :-)

  20. Not much more to add really, as most of what I would say has already been said! Just a few things though:
    - In Honours of War you have units that receive 4 hits have to retreat to reform, one or two moves away from the enemy. The latter is preferable to give you chance to restore order to the unit. This unit still has the potential to be combat effective, but is in a poor state. As Keith says, this reflects the fact that during the SYW units often retired to reform before re-entering the fray.
    - Again in HoW units that receive 5 hits are done for, ie they are routing from the battlefield and no longer have the ability to be combat effective despite the best efforts of their officers etc.
    - The test for other units 'routing' when one units 'routs' I see as a way of reflecting commanders of units not wanting to have the flank hanging in the air, so leading to them possibly retiring to maintain cohesion of the line. Dave's friend was at the Waterloo re-enactment and after a few volleys he could barely see the end of his unit, which was tiny in length compared to a full unit, which IIRC was 200 yards long, or maybe more? So you see units streaming past you in the smoke and haze of battle and you may not know if you have cavalry close by reay to attack, another infantry unit etc.

    So I think 'Routing' has become a catch all phrase to cover the above, when it really should be used for just when a unit has completely lost cohesion and combat effectiveness and is fleeing the field of battle.

  21. Hi Steve, yes, I think it has become a catch-all, but in the boardgame world, results seem to go straight from retreat to rout, with none of the finer nuance between the two. With figures, there is at least the common mechanic of putting a dice with a unit and watching the deterioration of the force and one can see the rout / break coming before it happens.

    The smoke is an interesting point. Perhaps our games should have a negative modifier after the first volley when firing on consecutive turns!

  22. In my own rules, which tend to be incremental/attritional for many periods, I usually give the players some sort of reorganisation option they can take BEFORE the unit is destroyed. It is easier to reorg when not in proximity to the enemy, so I frequently see battered units voluntarily withdrawing in order to reorganise. That seems to work quite well, but it only really works as formations typically have quite a lot of hits to lose.

  23. Several rule systems, when allowing hits to be lost, don’t allow the first or second hit to go, so they always remain with the unit. perhaps campaign settings encourage players to withdraw and preserve units.

    1. That is pretty much exactly the system in our house rules, written by Mark at 1866 and all That.

  24. I'm bot 100% sure what the question is; but have enjoyed reading the various interpretations on what 'routing' means. So i'll just chime in with my own definitions. Seems to be what everyone else is doing.. .. 😀
    In a miniature game or a board game with a very small time or unit scale if a unit / piece routs I expect it to be taken off the table to never come back.
    In a board game focusing on a whole battle over the whole day or even several days / a campaign if a unit routs I expect it back up really far to a place of safety and then be able to rally / reorganize like how you described above. It can be dependent on many factors from unit experience / terrain / war length / leadership. For examples from everyone's FAVORITE CW the ACW. Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) where the Union army routed all the way back to Washington compared the the Battle of Shiloh where the union army was ROUTED just some miles to the river and reformed into a really good defensive line later the same day.

    1. Have to reply about Shiloh. Prentiss, Hurlbut, and half of WHL Wallace's divisions routed back to the river. McClernand and much of Sherman's division fell back to the last line and held. Had they not, even the disorganized final Confederate assault would have taken Pittsburg Landing, sealing the win. Most of the routed units didn't go forward on the second day.

      As for First Bull Run, what saved the Union was that the grass-green Rebels collapsed in victory as badly as the Yankees had in defeat. Soldiers wandered about looking for souvenirs and politician/officers gave speeches, all convinced that this one battle had won the war.

    2. Stew, thinking about the game was at the heart of my reason to post, units (boardgame) are Brigades, so I would have to accept that within the brigade, not every regiment is ‘seriously’ involved in the initial rout and perhaps this provides grounds for variables in the return to the fray.

      However, my main concern is that once a unit does rout, it should not move in a ‘pleaser’ way for its commander or comrades - it should just panic and rout, with personal safety being the number 1 priority. Boardgames do seem to give the latitude for fancy footwork …. Which is a shame!

    3. Chadwick's Battle for Moscow board game is unusual in that the winning player selects the retreat route of the loser, following the criteria in the rules.

    4. Yes - a much more satisfying mechanic, it stops bad results being used by the defender to actually improve their position …. More fancy footwork :-)

  25. Norm:
    In many games, routed units flee willy nilly off of the map or magically disappear. That may work in some places, and for ancient battles. But accounts of battles where units are in full retreat or routed talk about how they jammed the roads. Whether at Manassas or Kasserine Pass, men and equipment clog roads and passes, and block bridges.

    Perhaps every routed unit throws off x number of delay markers. The markets “move” without a road bonus down the road to exit at the army’s main supply route (no just hitting the nearest exit). Crossing a bridge counts double. Each delay marker should delay friendly units by an extra MP per marker. Enemy units are delayed two MPs, but remove the marker (rounding up POWs).

    That’s just an idea, but I don’t think I’ve seen done.

    As for routed units near friendly cavalry, I’m all for the friendly being removed from the map since they are merrily riding down fleeing troops.

    -Mike W

    1. Hmm, like that. For miniatures games, mark the units as gone and have them move towards the LOC. Makes better looking photos.

    2. Hi Mike, routing probably more often happens in the second half of the game, when participants are up against the clock for completing the game before the end of the session - I suspect the ‘clean’ method of just removing a unit from play has something to do with sub-consciously aiding the closure of the game - for myself, I prefer the game to play as though there wasn’t a cliff face we fall off in terms of game length, which is why linked scenarios are so much more fun.

  26. Very interesting Norm, particularly the thoughts about pursuit. Much food for thought


  27. Hi, I am thinking of a commander in their command position, just watching things unfold and having no ability to prevent some of those things that is hurting their army.

    1. Longstreet said that once a commander had sent in his last reserve, he had nothing more to do. Although in extremis, Longstreet and his staff manned two abandoned guns at Antietam.


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