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Thursday, 3 January 2019

Hidden troop movement

On a real battlefield, not everyone can see everyone else all the time. Troops might be hidden from the enemy, laying in ambush, seeking cover behind a hill, etc. This is especially true for the modern "empty battlefield", which doesn't have the colourful uniformed regiments marching in very visible formations across the field of fire towards the enemy.

Dealing with hidden troops (and hidden movement) on the gaming table has always been a challenge for the wargamer. In essence, there's no good solution to it, because the knowledge of the wargamer is not the same as the knowledge of the troops or the commanding general on the table. Dealing with hidden troops in wargaming is one of those issues that touch on the problem of the all-seeing gamer, and hence, any mechanic will always be a workable compromise.

Some mechanics might work better in some setups, because we need to distuinguish between different situations:
  • Is there an umpire present who can act as a keeper of "unknown" information?
  • Is only one side using hidden troops? The classic example is an attack./defence scenario, in which the defender is (initially) hidden, or an ambush scenario, where the ambushing troops are hidden. 
  • Are hidden troops static (e.g. the defensive side in a scenario), or can hidden troops move across the table and still remain hidden?
  • Can troops become hidden again after having become exposed?
  • Is the location of hidden troops known to the player controlling these troops?
  • ...
Each of these situations might favour a particular mechanic over another.

This post will zoom in on a few mechanics I have used in the past to represent hidden troops on the table. Note that I'm only discussing the hidden *location* of troops on the table, not the nature or characteristics of troops which might also be unknown to one or both players. Neither will I deal with movement that is unknown even to the controlling player (e.g. troops getting lost in a forest). Perhaps these might be the subject of a future post.

Using a map of the gaming table

Especially older wargaming publications promote the idea of using a map of the gaming table to track the position of troops. After each movement phase, an umpire should check the maps of both players and determine whether any troops become visible to the other player. Those units are then put on the table. Easy enough, but it only really works when an umpire is available.

The idea goes back to the original 19th century Kriegsspiel, in which there were 3 tables: one for each side, and one for the umpire. Only the umpire's table has all the information, and both sides gradually discover the location of the enemy troops. The use of three separate tables is not really a viable possiblity for many wargamers (except perhaps in a well-planned-in-advance club game), but the use of a separate smaller map is a possibility, as long as an umpire is present.

One instance in which we have used maps frequently is in attack/defence scenarios. The defender deploys hidden (using a map), and all attacking units are on the table. Once the (static) defending units become visible to the attacker, they are deployed on the table, and cannot become hidden again. No umpire is needed, and it is a simple mechanic to keep the attacker on his toes during the initial movement phases of the scenario.


Instead of dealing with maps, the location of hidden troops can be recorded by using easy-recognize features on the gaming table. E.g. one might make a note on the troop roster, stating something like "at the end of the road" or "in the little wood near the village".

Once a waypoint becomes visible for an enemy unit, any unit at the waypoint is placed on the gaming table. This approach works well if only one side is hidden, since if both sides would use waypoints, an umpire is still needed to cross-check hidden locations and decide who has become visible for whom.

To facilitate the use of way-points, I use small numbered markers on the battlefield. Instead of writing down things such as "the edge of the wood", or "behind the hill", a reference to a numbered marker is much easier. If you place enough of these numbered markers on "sensible" locations of the battlefield, most locations can be specified rather easily.

I use a set of small pebbles on which I have inked numbers 1-20, so they can blend in nicely with the scenery.

Dummy units

A total different approach for handling hidden troops on the gaming table, is to use dummy units. Dummy units are acting as a "placeholder" for real units, or perhaps there's no unit at all! In a sense, the location of troops becomes hidden by adding false information on the battlefield. The opponent can see the dummy units, but he doesn't know what dummy units are real and which are false. Hence, the location of the real units is effectively hidden.

The player controlling the dummy units should of course be aware which ones are "real", and he should keep track of that as well.

For some of my skirmish games, I use cheap black-painted, grey-drybrushed figures to indicate dummy units. As soon as contact is made with such a dummy unit, it is replaced by properly painted figures. Numbered labels attached underneath the base of the dummies allows for the controlling player to identify which units are which.

Dummy units: black painted, grey drybrushed figures.
This mechanic does not require waypoints as described above, but it does require some more figures (or other markers) to use as dummies. Moreover, the use of dummies adds a new dynamic to the game. The enemy can see where all the units are moving to, but can never be sure whether a concentration of dummies is real, or is only a ruse. It is also possible for both sides to use dummy units, hence avoiding the need for an umpire.


  1. I am testing a system in a skirmish wargame (sci-fi) using two markers for hidden troops to represent each unit. One of the markers is dummy and the other contains the actual troop. You as player move both markers as you please like real troops until one of then is unveiled by the enemy or by any of your actions. This knowing-unknowing duality drives mad to your opponent who has to deal with lot of variables.

    When your troop is out of sight/control of any enemy troop you come back to use the movement markers.

    Thanks for your superv blog!

    1. Interesting mechanic! I guess it's related to the "dummy units" as I described in the post, except that now each unit has it's own dummy marker, and identification of dummy/real is kept secret until observed. A sort of Schrödinger's cat mechanic :-)

    2. Haha I love that schrödinger name for this me suits it perfeclty, I stole it from you!

  2. I played a WWII game once where the defenders were hidden using markers, with a ratio of two dummies per real unit. The twist was that they didn't have to record which units were where. When the attackers spotted a marker, the defenders could choose to reveal it as a dummy (and remove it) or to deploy a unit there. Essentially the defenders got to place their units in response to the attacker's advance, but had to be careful how they did it because they only had a limited supply. Conversely the attackers had to carefully probe the defences, revealing dummies and trying to force the defender's hand. It worked surprisingly well.

    1. Interesting! I didn't think about that before, but indeed, it could be quite effective in attack/defence scenarios. It might even work in engagement scenarios - both players need to announce whether a dummy is real or not when it has been spotted by an enemy real unit. To avoid dummies spotting dummies, one could always use a rule that dummies cannot approach an enemy dummy within a certain distance or something similar. It might make for a very dynamic battlefield, with probes and feints taking place. Food for thought!

  3. This is a good blog you have here.
    I have been trying so hard to achieve an efficient hidden movement system for more than one player. I came up (or perhaps rediscovered something that was already there but isn't frequently used) with a concept that might have potential, but it still needs work.
    The idea is to have a shared log where each player keeps the locations of his units. The board and log are both divided into identical sections. So players can indicate where their units are without having to look at the entire map, they instead only see the sections that they need to edit or observe, and if there are enemies in those sections, then they will see it. I wrote a detailed post about this on BGG:

    1. Thanks for the nice comments.
      Yes, I saw your post on BGG as well ...

  4. Thought yall would appreciate the the Feldmachink:
    It's essentially a bunch of straws corresponding to each hex or square. Each player has as many dowels as units. They have a record of where each unit is which the other player cannot see. They each place a dowel in the feldmachink straws corresponding to where their units are. This is the genius bit: if there is a dowel sticking above the top of the straw, then they both know that in that spot they have made contact with the enemy.

    1. Ah yes, I remember that device now that you mention it. A clever contraption, but it always seemed a bit too unwieldy to use ...