The Roster System: Five Years Later

Another article by Joe Morschauser– From: The Miniature Parade, Volume 1 Number 2 – Winter 1967

The Roster System: Five Years Later
By Joseph Morschauser

Almost five years have passed since I set down some basic principles of the Roster System in my book, HOW TO PLAY WAR GAMES IN MINIATURE. At that time I pointed out that these principles and all the rules in this book were guides rather than hard and fast absolutes. Some didn’t bother to read this admonition and I would get letters from such people blasting one or the other particular point and saying that THEY felt thus-and-so way of doing something was better and that I was all wet. Of course often these same people would also state that everyone else should recognize their genius and follow their way of doing things!

I never bothered to answer such letters for I frankly feel that there is no such a thing as an absolute or “best” way of doing anything in war gaming. The whole point of the hobby is the wide latitude of method it allows its followers. After all we must conform in so many other things today that it would be senseless to insist that it also should be done in a hobby which is practiced for fun and relaxation.

As a result it was with some trepidation that I read Jack Scruby’s recent letter in which he asked me if I would set down the things I had been doing with the Roster System in the last five years.

Though I have been doing a good deal with it I feel what I have done is purely a personal preference and in no way should be taken as another set of rules from a so-called “master of war gaming”. Circumscribed by this caution and warning then I will now try to describe how the Roster System has evolved on my war game table over the last five years. If it’s of use, use it. If not, forget it, but please don’t write me long tomes about how crazy I am!

The Roster System evolved essentially out of a search for a method of handling many little military miniatures on a big table with a minimum of physical effort. I was no lazier than the next man but I had just about had it with those 6 hour war games, the troops that tumbled over at the brush of an elbow, and the breakage that often resulted from such tumbles. I also was pretty sick of the last hours of those games in which a very few troops floundered about on a huge table looking more like display pieces in a model railroad layout than troops fighting a battle. The result you know: troops were fastened on trays, given a quantity factor (numbers) and not removed from the table until all men on the tray were marked off the Roster. The tray of figures could be made to represent a platoon, company, battalion or even a division, just by a bit of paperwork.

I recall one of the early Roster System battles I conducted. It was a solo game using 54mm troops, about 20 trays for each side, and fought in my back yard on a warm summer day. Being solo it was not a true test of the system but it convinced me that the whole idea was practical. True to my favorite war gaming period, it pitted Zulus against a small force of British in a tiny town while a somewhat larger force of British cavalry rode across the lawn to the rescue. The Zulus won, the cavalry never got there and the System proved itself practical.

Further modifications and games led up to the Battle of Fashoda in which close to 70 trays was used on each side. This was the proof of the pudding and the description of a rudimentary Roster System went into the book on which I was then working.

This original System was based on the use of a number of figures fastened to a tray of wood or cardboard, said tray being given a number and behind that number on a Roster sheet was listed the numbers of troops that tray represented. The System held up pretty well over the next few years but the paperwork involved in marking off casualties in a big battle took almost as much time and energy as had been required to actually move that number of troops around the table top. This time added to that needed for measuring move and range distances (and arguments about fractions of an inch) then led me to adopt a gridded table top. The grids were drawn on the table in medium green marking pencil ink and though they did give a somewhat checkerboard effect to the battlefield, they cut down time needed for troop movement. Combined with the original quantitative type of Roster System the grids produced a game which could be played in 3to 4 hours despite the heavy paperwork.

Almost all of this early experimentation and battling was conducted with the 54mm Britains troops mounted on square plyboard trays measuring 2 7/8 inches square. The grids on the table were 3 inches. Then came reduction: I reasoned naturally that there was no good reason why I had to use such large figures and such a large table top. Like many war gamers I began to convert to 30mm Scruby type troops, the. Same numbers mounted on a tray measuring 2 inches square.

A further reduction took place about a year ago when I ended up with 1 1/2 inch square trays with even smaller figures. This meant I could conduct a battle of the same magnitude using the quantitative Roster System on a table one quarter the area of the original one used for the 54mm figures. From an, “8 by 12 footer” I had cut things down to a “4 by 6 footer”. However the reduction in size was accompanied by an increase in the paper work for at this point I got the idea of adding other factors to the Roster beyond just numbers of figures a tray represented.

Our family moved to a larger house at this point but with the move came the loss of all the cellar space I had once had for war gaming. When the shock was calmed a bit and we were settled, I naturally began again to grind the wheels of war game thinking. Not long after I wrote a little piece for TTT which included the results of that new cogitation. It was called “Humanizing the Roster System”. In it I expressed my belief that my war gaming had become dehumanized and told how, by assigning different qualitative (rather than quantitative) factors to each tray (which now contained only one figure), a war game could be re-humanized. This concept of course reflected my own situation on a limited table space and limited space in which to set up war games. It was aimed at making the very small unit action interesting and detailed enough to be worth battling. I think some of the influence in this direction came from my having seen the fine movie “Zulu” in which each individual soldier who stood at the great defense of Roarke’s Drift was so well characterized. It was this film more than anything else that made me realize that war gamers were missing a key element in their miniature conflicts. Battles are always fought by people, not units, yet up till then I had always unitized mine.

This brings us up to date. At present writing the Roster System as I practice it has shaken down a bit more into a compromise between the huge, faceless, massed-unit action and the detailed, individual small battle type of thing. I have discovered that the qualitative or humanized approach is fine if one wants to conduct a Roark’s Drift but the vast amount of paper work produced by enlargement into a full-scale battle makes the game an impossibility; even on a small table with time-saving grids. Certainly a game involving 2,000 trays (each with a single figure on it) a side played in the humanized manner would be the pinnacle of war gaming, but who among us has a month of free days to conduct such a battle and who has the strength and energy to run such a fight?

The mouth filling name I have chosen to dump on this latest modification of the poor old Roster idea is the Qualitative/Quantitative Roster System, or quickly, the Q/Q Roster System. The first army set, which is still in the process of preparation, which will be used under this system, consists of 20mm ancient Greek warriors from the Scruby stable of fine figures. Each of these figures is mounted on a 7/8 inch square and they will be used on a battlefield 3ft by 3ft in size, gridded with 1 inch squares. Troops are broken into 8 man units and all are infantry (I could have added cavalry on 1 7/8 inch trays but chose not to do so).

For purposes of this “Greek” war game all figures are exactly alike. However there is an army color (silver or gold) and each unit has a plume on its helmets of a certain color for identification. Roughly 7 to 9 units would be used by each side in a game.

That’s all just basics but here are the details on the Q/Q Roster System. Each .unit will have a different speed: each will have a different range for its spear (don’t tell me Greeks didn’t throw spears – I know it – but mine do). Each will have a different power or strength in melee, not strength of numbers but ability to fight hand-to-hand. Finally each will carry one, two or three spears. As these are tossed at the enemy in any given turn a mark will indicate that unit has thrown one of its javelins. (For purposes of simplicity all members of an 8 man unit will throw their spears at the same time in the same turn regardless).

The basis of this system is a series of cards, about 30 or so of which will be made up. Each card will indicate Speed, Number of Weapons, Range of Weapon, Melee strength an_ possibly some other factors involving a unit.

Commanders will draw cards from a hat at the start of a game to the number of units they have. Then they will assign cards to each of their units by writing in the unit color at the top of the card. Thus a unit with a red helmet plume will make use of the card marked “red” for that game. On this card the commander will also mark off any firing done by that unit, but no marking need be done for numbers in unit since each man will be plainly visible on the board.
The point of this system is that the enemy never will know how powerful or weak a unit is in melee until he runs into it, how many javelins it has to fire, how fast it can move until it moves. He knows the numbers on the battlefield but he doesn’t know what they can do. If it is desired to fix a game into a strong versus weak force in a good position, or some such unbalanced battle, then the unit cards can just be given each commander with 5 strong and 2 weak to the powerful army and 3 strong and 4 weak to the other. Yet the same number of troops on trays will be on the, table the same number to move during a battle.

This Q/Q System as it now stands has only been developed for the simple period of warfare, shock period. However there is absolutely nothing to prevent its being adapted to more modern games. The only added work involved would be the making up of cards for each type of unit used, cavalry cards, light infantry cards, Guard cards, artillery cards, etc. within each set of cards there would be a variation from strong to weak units, Qualitative strength or weakness, Quantitative strength or weakness, or BOTH, if you want a really involved battle lasting a long time. The trick of course is not to use too many unit cards, perhaps a dozen per side being the maximum for a good game of moderate length.

This brings the old Roster System up to date, at least as far as my own game is concerned. No doubt others have spread father a field in imaginative modifications, and rightly so. For that is what the System was designed for, expansion and development. It certainly has had a great deal to give me, and I hope that it has had something for you too.