Broken Squad: A Look At Morale In Video Games

By Martynas Klimas 21 Dec 2017 2

Back in ages past, Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power by blew my mind by stating “hey, just like in real war, you don't need to destroy enemy units, just make them run away.” I must have already played Medieval II: Total War at that point, but the lesson on morale had never been delivered in such an outright manner before or after.


Morale of combat units is really important in the real world. It was kind of disheartening for me to be a young-ish military history nerd and to learn that elite units are usually considered such because of their morale, and not because of their "l33r noscope headshot skills". Usually volunteers – as far as US and German WWII paratroopers are concerned – they were considered elite even when their ability to jump out of a perfectly good plane was irrelevant. Generals through the entire history placed good value on men who could see their friends dying left and right on them and still stick in the fight, even if the enemy was upon them. This is what morale is: the willingness to stick till the bitter end instead of dropping your guns and running.

Screenshot 1

Galactic Assault didn’t inflict a Risk-style campaign on us, which I’m thankful for.

It's a pity, then, to see games like Numantia treating morale as a stat maybe even less pertinent than stamina. That game doesn't even deign to outline the full effects of the fighting spirit of your troops. In XCOM, your soldiers don't panic unless they survive a wounding hit or (rarely) if someone bites the dust nearby. Morale as a mechanic has atrophied to nothingness in the Dawn of War series, too: while the first game had demoralized squads lose most of their combat effectiveness (and spout great unit barks), the latest instalment has embraced MOBA mechanics that lead to a game where units are totally expendable, fragile and not even worth the bother to apply morale systems. Total War: Warhammer (and TW:WHII) is also lagging: while you could previously rout entire armies by smashing into the enemy lines well enough, nowadays the soldiers rally not long after fleeing – maybe they remember that they left the keys with their general. It's just one of the many frustrations when it comes to that game that modders are quick to fix.

However, I do not imply that all developers discard morale with an idle hand. While morale was mostly a perfunctory factor in Wargame series – most units don't live long enough to be dispirited and the scale is far too large for a breaking infantry squad to matter much – Steel Division: Normandy 44 is a lot more serious about it. With a much more intimate scale, a single well placed MG will pin the ever loving hell out of some advancing infantry squads – units that you can't really afford to waste. Tanks will panic as AT rounds bounce off the glacis, rattling the crew. And if your soldiers get cut off due to the new frontline mechanic, they will surrender unless they are under the watchful eye of their officers.

steel division morale article

No Tetrarch tank should ever be that calm!

And then you have your airborne – they're “meant to be surrounded” as the unit bark from Company of Heroes goes – who really don't care where they are on the battlefield. They're an elite unit trained to be behind the enemy lines, let Jerry come at them!

That is not to say that morale can't be a great influencer outside RTS games. The aforementioned Galactic Assault – silly name, but the game was built on Massive Assault engine – was a TBS. And in the modern day, we have our own Slitherine's Warhammer 40K: Sanctus Reach. Say what you will about the game (Space Marine modeling is lostech, and what is this mono-weapon squad nonsense), but morale is an important factor in it. As a unit's morale drops (since it's a bunch of filthy xenos under assault from the Emperor's Finest), it gradually loses effectiveness on the battlefield. It becomes less accurate, it starts losing the ability to conduct reaction fire or counter attacks in melee, and it no longer projects a zone of control, until it eventually breaks and runs. This is all super ironic considering how 8th edition 40K ruleset has reduced the role of morale to a question of “if some dudes died in your unit, will more dudes die out of sympathy?”


Units staring down a Knight might not have the time to get demoralized before getting vaporized.

Of course, even table top games can teach us important lessons about morale. For example, my beloved and best WW2 ruleset Bolt Action basically ties unit veterancy to both morale and effectiveness in the field. This might be modified a little by some abilities, but the rule of the thumb is that veterans are awesome and inexperienced troops are trash. Meanwhile, Flames of War (now in its much maligned 4th edition) had always separated unit stats into training and morale. The game recognized that elite soldiers weren't necessarily hard charging badasses – as Allied leaders found out when veteran formations proved to be less aggressive in Normandy – while green troops could have more than enough zeal to carry the day, even if they can't hold the gun straight. This is a remarkable idea – veterans of war becoming to weary to put their necks into unnecessary risk – that few if any games ever implement.

Incidentally, I would like to mention one of the most bizarre cases of morale non-implementation in gaming history. In Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank, your squads will understandably become unhappy over getting shot at. They will start losing movement and ability to fire. That's why you can rally them. And if the sergeant of the squad fails to do it, the platoon commander will give it the old Frunze Academy try. If he fails, you have to wait for the next turn and try again. And that's the full extent of morale in game. Noticeably missing? Any sort of force wide morale implementation. That's why engagements where one side has a lot more troops than the other can be super lopsided. There will never be a mass rout or a collapse; rather, you'll have to whittle the enemy to nothing in a battle of attrition that would make a stereotypical WWI general proud. And this is super frustrating in a game that takes such great pains to recreate so much of the battlefield conditions.

iraq morale article

You can’t see it from here, but those Iraqis aren’t having fun.

But that is just a minor outlier, especially when you consider that we have an entire genre that basically untouched by the hand of morale: shooters. Be they of the third or the first person kind, the only trace of morale in them is a screen blur when you're being suppressed. Meanwhile, the enemy forces will continuously and unflinchingly charge into your fire. Brother in Arms was the only series that tried to play with that – the game really wanted you to suppress the enemy with your MG team before going in for the kill – but it is now extremely dead.

Now, it would be unrealistic to expect Call of Duty to have actual morale mechanics; those games are as concerned with military realism as I am with sports games (not a whole lot). But even more serious simulators like ARMA seem to deal with enemy forces single-minded enough to put Tyranids to shame. However, you can justify shooters in a way that you can't strategy games. Simply put, the joy of shooting a person in any person, be it first or third, is one of the main attractions of the game. You don't have engagements over 300 meters where you barely see the opponent and they can decide to bug off if the amount of lead you're sending their way is too much. How would the player feel about not getting to shoot anyone? They're in no position to appreciate the collapse of an enemy position. Campaign level morale is also hard to translate into an FPS in a satisfactory way.

arma morale article

To be fair, uncrewed vehicles act more realistically human than the bots in ARMA III.

And when it comes to multiplayer games, where players don't really care about their lives, breaking morale is a meta effect: you either make the losing players to disconnect or not. And that is something you can hardly factor into game design, especially since you want your players to play the game instead of going for the hills once the going gets tough. That's why you don't get to keep of XP, kill stats and other baubles if you log off in a match of Battlefield.

Morale is a finicky subject both in real life and on the virtual battlefields. However, it can be codified to a certain extent and it certainly plays a role in making strategy games more challenging and realistic. After all, war isn't Command and Conquer -- you just can't send a conga line of conscripts to die before a prism tower before eventually overcoming in a death by thousand cuts. And in the year 2017 – and 2018 – a strategy game shouldn't think it's still OK.



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