Back to basics: written orders

I was reminded yesterday that those of us who have been playing wargames for some considerable time often take certain concepts for granted. In this instance, reader Jimmy Hansen sent me an email as follows:

Help, please!!
The author of the rules in issues 23 & 24 discusses “Written Orders” for units as being standard for H&M rules. OK. Where is the original source information so I can myself know exactly what is meant by specific written orders? The articles are very good, I want to play them, but I am lost as to how to meet the pre-written orders rule section. Any help that you can provide would be awesome and sincerely appreciated by this peasant.

Well, there’s no need for Jimmy to call himself a peasant, because it dawned on me that written orders have certainly fallen out of fashion in recent years, though in the recently-published Wargaming in History Volume 2, Charles Grant alludes to them and gives a brief explanation. If you’re younger than I am, and have been raised on a diet of Warhammer or Warmaster, for example, then there’s no reason at all that you should be familiar with the concept of writing orders for your units, either general or specific.

So, with that in mind, here’s what I replied:

Until quite recently, written orders were standard, not just in horse and musket wargaming, but in miniatures wargames, whatever the period. The reason for this was simple: historically, in the days before mobile phones, radios and walkie-talkies, ALL orders had to be sent to real-life commanders and their subordinates in writing. The general would either write them himself, or dictate them to an aide or secretary, who would then write them out, hand them to a courier, and off they would run or ride! (The telegraph operators of the mid-late 19th century were sort of electronic couriers!) It’s no surprise, therefore, that one of the reasons for written orders was to add ‘realism’ to wargames.

The form the orders would take would vary according to the formation involved. If a WWI Field Marshal was sending orders to a General, then the order might be “Attack Belgium!” In earlier times, such as at the battle of Waterloo, it might be from Napoleon to Marshal Ney saying “Attack the enemy centre opposite La Haye Sainte farmhouse.” On the other hand, lower down the scale, it might be a colonel of a regiment telling the captain commanding one of his companies, “Occupy that village on the ridge and prevent the enemy from taking it.”

Even lower down, a lieutenant might say, “Sergeant, take B platoon and circle round to the right of the orchard; corporal, take five men and set up a fire position near that haystack; I’ll take the rest of the men straight up the road until we make contact.”

But notice the subtle difference there: a lieutenant commands at a much lower level, so he would probably give the order in person, face-to-face, unless his platoons are strung out for some reason. In modern (say from WW2 onwards) warfare, companies do indeed cover much greater amounts of ground, because weapons have much longer ranges and lethality, so the men need to be spread out — but this is compensated by the modern communications methods mentioned earlier (though you should never assume that modern comms work perfectly every time — look at how difficult it can be to get a mobile phone signal sometimes, and that’s without bombs going off around you.)

Another reason for written orders is to add another kind of reality: surprise. Many rulesets used simultaneous moves, rather than alternate moving (also called IGO-UGO), like chess, which is more common today. For many years, I only ever played wargames with simultaneous moves, and I had a lot of fun!

The idea is simple. In real warfare, one side doesn’t just sit around, twiddling their thumbs, while the other side moves and shoots. Everything is happening at the same time, moving, shooting, meleeing, running away… So, the logic goes, why should wargames be any different? So games with simultaneous moves became popular, but some wargamers being what they are, a certain amount of gamesmanship (let’s not stoop to calling it ‘cheating’ just yet) took hold, with one player taking rather more time to make up their mind about what to do with their troops, whilst their more decisive or rash opponents got to work and moved their troops quickly. The problem is that the sharp-minded, decisive player A — who might make a good general in real life — found themselves at a disadvantage to the dallying opponent B who waited to see what A was going to do first.

Well, as any decent chap would realise, this just wasn’t on, so the idea grew of both players writing orders for their army at the start of the game (what became known as ‘general’ orders) and then for each unit, during the interval between each turn. Some players set a time limit on order writing — perhaps five or ten minutes, depending on the size of the game — so that our player B above couldn’t spend all day deciding whether to change from line to square or to declare a charge or to open fire. Then, after the agreed interval, both sides would declare their intentions, actually showing their order sheet to their opponent if necessary, and both sides would move their troops, then calculate artillery and musketry fire, carry out hand-to-hand fighting and finally calculate the morale effects of all that action, remove casualties and so on. The effects of what had just happened would then be incorporated into the next set of unit orders, such as whether a regiment had been forced to retire or rout, and so on.

Obviously, there would be times when the written orders given by each side might conflict. For example, general A might order his hussars to charge general B’s dragoons, but general B has ordered them to wheel and move away. The simple answer is to break the move down into segments, perhaps quarters, and move each unit at the appropriate rate until the matter is decided. In this case, B’s dragoons will be stuck in their original position for at least half a turn, say, before they move off in the new direction, so if A’s hussars are within half a charge move distance, they will make contact; if not, there’s a chance the enemy dragoons will get away.

However, the point is this: if A’s written orders state that the hussars will charge the enemy dragoons, then they MUST attempt to do so — he can’t pretend otherwise and have them charge a more convenient, stationary unit. Likewise, B has ordered his dragoons to wheel away in the face of danger — this might lead to them getting charged in the flank as they turn. Well, tough luck!

Orders can be really simple. General orders might be “The Fifth Division will advance on the right flank and take the village of Kleindorf. Once there, the artillery should be positioned to prevent the enemy from attacking the village. The infantry should establish themselves in the buildings and fortify the position and hold it at all costs. The cavalry should be kept in reserve to help prevent the enemy breaking through. Do not advance from the village unless given specific orders to do so.” Another might be, “The Cavalry Brigade, with one light cavalry regiment in reserve, should charge directly at the infantry in the enemy centre and attempt to break through. If they succeed, the lead regiments should rest on that position until reinforced and the reserve regiment should pursue the enemy and prevent them from reforming.” The original Wargames Research Group Ancients rules had quite a formalised system of giving general orders — see “History of W.R.G.” at

Move orders, on the other hand, can be as simple as a couple of words and an arrow to indicate the direction of any movement or fire (the bottom of the page is always deemed to be your own table edge). Here’s a sample order sheet so that you can see what I mean.

Sample Orders SheetI normally just use a ruler to draw some columns on a piece of ruled or graph paper, move numbers across the top, units down the side, using extra sheets if necessary for a larger number of units or moves beyond 12 or so. (A wargame ‘day’ typically lasts a dozen moves.)

Some gamers, instead of writing orders for every unit every move, simply write down the new order when they want a unit to do something different from what was in their original, general orders. For example, if our cavalry brigade in the example given above is suddenly needed elsewhere on the battlefield, such as to fight off an enemy breakthrough on the flank, then a courier would have to be sent from the general to the cavalry brigade, and an appropriate delay imposed before they could respond. If they have not moved far from the general, then it might only take them a move or two to act on the new instructions; however, if they are halfway across the battlefield, on the other side of a hill, then the general’s aide might have some considerable trouble finding them! Famous wargamer Don Featherstone was one of the first people to start using chance cards to cover such eventualities. You could simply allocate a different event to each of a standard pack of playing cards, and each move the order is en route, you draw one. For example, the ace of hearts might mean that the courier is on a good horse and can move at double speed; on the other hand, the ace of clubs might mean that the horse is killed by a stray cannonball and the courier must either find a fresh horse, or walk the rest of the way!

So, that’s pretty much how written orders work. One of the nice things is that at the end of the game, you have a written record of precisely what each unit did and when. Coupled with a sketch map of each general’s dispositions (I always like to have each player do a rough map of where they want to position each unit before the game — the results can be amusing, as players frequently fail to appreciate just how much room their units take up, especially battalions in line and cavalry regiments, and just like in real life, they can learn a hard lesson!), this gives you a lovely memento of the game to look back on in later years. Coupled with a few digital photographs, you’ve got an instant scrapbook or blog entry.

Now, some people would say that written orders slow things down, but in my experience, that’s not only not the case, but often quite the opposite. When playing an alternate-move game like Warhammer, for example, one player has to sit and wait while all kinds of things just ‘happen’ to them, and depending on their style of play, your opponent can take ages making up their mind what to do; whereas with written orders, after the few minutes needed to scrawl quick orders, both sides can crack on with putting those orders into practice and concentrate on the shooting and meleeing at the same time, which can create great excitement. The other thing about alternate moves is that in my experience, they can seem very chess-like and predictable, and chess players tend to do well compared to players who are actually better militarily and have that ‘coup d’oeuil’ so revered amongst real generals.

Nowadays, of course,  a ‘third way’ has emerged of ‘phased’ moves. By this I mean that only sections of the move are alternate, and some are simultaneous. For example, you might roll for initiative, and player A might win and move his troops first that turn, or choose to have his opponent move, but shooting and meleeing might be considered simultaneous. There are, of course, many permutations, and the addition of ‘chance’ or ‘event’ cards  and randomized movement (Warmaster and Black Powder are two excellent recent examples of this) can really stir things up.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, can think of many other things that I could have added, such as the realistic use of ‘standing’ orders. For example, cavalry would almost always be expected to countercharge if charged, with an appropriate delay to simulate the time taken to realise what was happening and respond. Perhaps in later periods, infantry would always be expected to ‘dig in’ or to loophole buildings they occupy. And artillery, of course, might reasonably be expected to switch to canister if the enemy approaches to within musket-shot range.

However, overall, the point is this: never assume that a newcomer to the hobby has the faintest idea of what you mean by those well-worn and familiar terms! In my experience, it often starts with “rank and file”!


  1. Belated Happy New Year Henry. Really wellwritten explanation. Must confess I started like you with written order/simultaneous movement rules, left it behind for years and have blown the dust of those rules and am againing playing them with some of the same people I started in the hobby with!!!!!!!!

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