May 21, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Heroes of the Battlefield

Each week, our #DesignXDragoons panel will offer their thoughts on a talk about game design, game development, or gameplay.
You’ll see what they have to say, and get a chance to chime in yourself, either in the comments below, or in our forums

This week’s question:
Some tactical games feature individual non-leader units – sometimes called heroes. These individual hero units typically act as a force multipliers, providing bonuses to firepower, morale or defense. But are hero units a concession to sensational gameplay, or do they reflect the legitimate contributions of real-world soldiers who have distinguished themselves “above and beyond” the call of duty?

David Enteness  – Designer/Owner, The Wargaming Company

I think this is dependent on what is being modeled – A Song of Ice and Fire does this, I can have a hero model whose special ability is to bring troops that have been lost as casualties back to the unit. Initial reaction of a player may be: That’s absurd, what that dude raises the dead? But just consider the mechanic away from the game it is found in. I’m modeling pseudo-medieval battles, most of the loss of numbers in a unit are not combat losses but men wandering off, getting knocked down and deciding it is better to stay down despite not being wounded, or not being wounded enough to no longer be combat worthy. And the role of a leader is often to get these soldiers to re-engage. So there’s an example of how the concept can be really useful, subject to a good implementation it represents a really important aspect of the period.

But you can also do it terribly. “Well, here’s your unit of elite-super-trooper-guard-soldiers that are practically undefeatable, but their commander sucks so it is difficult to get them to do anything.” Or… “Here are your low morale, irregular, militia, partisans who won’t stand and fight… unless so-and-so super neat hero dude is with them and then they act like a normal unit, or maybe even better!” Both are bad implementations because they are built on false presumptions. If your elite-super-trooper-guard-soldiers aren’t playable because of how good they are, that is a design problem and it isn’t solved by making them incapable of action. Similarly, if  your low morale, irregular, militia, partisans aren’t useful in their own right and have to be turned into a regular unit by adding some hero character, chances are they are not modeling anything correctly to begin with. The latter example is often accompanied by the justification that “they are a regular unit until special-hero-commander is knocked out and then they are a lousy unit again, ooh see clever!” but it isn’t clever because the practical player will just run the numbers on probability of losing special-hero-commander-guy and say “OK, those are not the odds of losing the special commander, those are the odds of losing that unit, are they better or worse odds than the conditions under which I’d lose a ’normal’ unit?” And that probably doesn’t drive the game play the designer is hoping for.


Jim Webaneth  – Game Designer / Publisher, Line of Departure

It’s a concept that I support, on general principle.  Tolstoy and Marx both denigrated the importance of the individual, emphasizing the central concept of large groups.  Neither one was even a little right, as I see it. Especially in smaller groups, and thus smaller-scale games, the individual is more likely to take a central role, sometimes emerging from an unexpected direction.  T.R. Fehrenbach wrote in This Kind of War about how he saw guys in Korea who were basically problem soldiers who, under fire, turned into real warriors, carrying a lot more than their share of the load. The individual matters, and it’s not always the designated leaders.

Then again, haven’t we been seeing this for forty years, in Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader?


Anthony Gallela  – Game Designer / Convention FounderDxD-bds-wikimedia

I believe it was Baba Deep Singh who lead a Sikh army through a force ten times (or more) their size to recapture the Golden Temple. He carried two seventy-pound swords; making him quite strong and formidable; and fought at the front of the line; providing the inspiration needed for his army to reach its goal. I think there’s no denying that Baba Deep Singh, at the very least, would give a bonus to the Sikh forces morale rolls as long as he was alive (and even just after his death if the legend is to be believed). Making him stronger and a better fighter seems, to me, to be in order as well. There a scores of such heroes in history. Their prowess and effect on their troops is certainly something that should be reflected in any game where they’re represented — and as such heroes are regularly told-of, having generally-more-heroic characters in games without named characters seems realistic as well.


Brian Train  – Game Designer / Game Theorist

I don’t play many tactical games. I think the notion that “hero units” can be counted on to show up in games, or be included in the force mix from the start, is playing into the Sgt. Rock model. There are, it is true, very many brave fighters who do remarkable things, but the impact of what they do often is not apparent at the moment, that is not in the very artificially compressed time scale and artificially un-chaotic engagement.



Devin Heinle  – The OG / Game Designer, LNLP

They reflect legitimate contributions of real-world soldiers. Look at the writeups of anyone whoever won the Silver Star and above. Pretty stellar stuff. Above-and-beyond heroics.


Peter Bogdasarian  – Game Designer

The latter.


Steve Overton  – Game & Scenario Designer

In my games they reflect the times when people will take actions that they normally wouldn’t or that go against established norms.


Dr. Mike Benninghof, PhD  – Founder/Owner & Designer, Avalanche Press

We believe in heroes; Herodotus said that he wrote history so that great deeds would not be forgotten. We are poorer when we forget our heroes.


Byron Collins  – Fonder/Owner & Designer, Collins Epic Wargames

Heroes are fun. But I prefer it when every soldier is capable of heroics. Maybe that’s a critical hit, maybe it’s charging ahead and being successful, maybe a pilot survives, lands behind enemy lines and survives… when a soldier becomes a hero, their story in the game becomes more interesting.


COL Eric Walters, USMC (R)  – DoD Wargaming Practitioner

DxD-medicI think hero counters/markers can (and often do) contribute to both portraying legitimate contributions but also are the stuff of excitement/”sensationalism” to the point where one feels like the game is less of an exercise in learning history and more like watching a Hollywood war movie or reading a Sergeant Rock comic book.  Personally, I never looked at tactical wargames as very effective in putting the player into the shoes of the historical commander counterpart–given all the concessions that usually/necessarily are made, so my expectations are somewhat low here.  I tend to be happy with the sensationalism.  To my way of thinking, a more “realistic” tactical simulation would be an RPG with loads of fog of war and uncertainty, a number of players as subordinate, peer, or senior commanders in your “party” with differing concerns and agendas, and so forth.  That, by necessity, means a game-master of some kind.  Heroes would be more accepted in that kind of environment than perhaps in a board game as a matter of course!

By the way, I applaud games that are bringing a different kind of hero onto the battlefield–that of the chaplain, the medic, and such.


Jeff Horger  – Game Designer / Owner, Labaratory H

Can a thing be two things? I was never in the military but I have known a number of people, including family members that were. All of them had stories of that one guy that kept morale up or that did things that they thought impressive. Admittedly, they were short on first-hand reports of battle-changing valor (perhaps a key to how rare it is?). In fact in my 50 years I believe I have only heard in person two stories like that where in the heat of combat one person seemed to turn the tide. One led directly to the hero’s death and the other was not as much super-heroic bravery but a cunning that allowed a victory without firing a shot. To be honest, my opinion has always been that there are brave heroes on each side of every battlefield and in general they probably nullify each other in general. However there are always times when one side gains an advantage and it’s usually due to some type of initiative, skill, or knowledge that one side can utilize at the moment.

In game terms that can be hard to quantify and show. A ‘hero’ is a great innovation in gaming that allows us to ‘see’ and breath life into the concept. The same can be represented by a die modifier, a re-roll, extra command points, whatever. But in the abstract it is less impactful that to say “Corporal Schwartz has just achieved Hero status and can re-roll one die roll per turn that he is involved with as opposed to I achieved a random goal that allows me to re-roll a die roll with Squad D for the rest of the game.”

The hero counter provides two distinct feelings in a player. First, this single piece of cardboard can turn the tide in this battle. History is littered with tides being turned and this is an in-game representative of that. However, at the same time there is a feeling of uh-oh I have this tide-turner that I now have to work to keep alive. The enemy will undoubtedly see that piece of cardboard as an inordinate threat that needs to be stopped. So players are faced with the dual thought process of this may be the key to victory… how can I lock it away and protect it?

So yes I think a hero can be both a historical focal point and at the same time a game function represented in a piece of cardboard.


We appreciate you visiting the Armchair Dragoons!
Please join the discussion in our discussion forum, or in the comment area below.

We can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and once the plague subsides, perhaps at a convention near you

Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

Tell us what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: