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Subject: Tactical vs Strategic vs Operational rss

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Michael J
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I have a budding interest in wargames, and while reading about the games, I see the words tactical, strategic, and operational level thrown about all the time. I have a general idea of how tactical games play out, but I don't think I've ever played something strategic or operational. I'm not even sure if "strategic" is the right word. Maybe "Risk" is operational?

Can someone describe these terms in more detail for me? And perhaps they can summarize what a turn for each type of game might look like? And are there other sub-genres that I should know about?
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Leo Zappa
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The United States Army field manual FM 100-5, on the definition of the operational level of war:

"Operational - the operational level of war uses available military resources to attain strategic goals within a theater of war. Most simply, it is the theory of larger unit operations. It also involves planning and conducting campaigns." US Army Field Manual FM 100-5 Operations

FM 100-5 also goes on to define the strategic level of war:

"Military strategy employs the armed forces of a nation to secure objectives of national policy by applying force or the threat of force." US Army Field Manual FM 100-5 Operations


Using a couple of classic Avalon Hill games as examples, think of it this way:

Strategic: Rise and Decline of the Third Reich Rise and Decline of the Third Reich
Operational: The Russian Campaign The Russian Campaign

Operational level games usually involve the movement of divisions and corps with a single theater of war, and usually provide the players with their historical reinforcements entering the game at the historically correct times and locations. Strategic level games often depict the maneuver of corps, army, and army group level units within multiple theaters of war, and often include economic systems allowing players to "purchase" units as they choose to construct their own order of battle to suit their grand strategy.
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Robb Minneman
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It's a question of scale and focus. "Tactical" games center on individual units moving around on the battlefield. Games like Advanced Squad Leader or Wings of War are tactical games. They're small-scale unit actions, where turns are on the order of seconds to minutes.

Operational games cover larger unit formations and consequently larger time scales. Units involved are battalion to division-sized, and play covers hours on up to two week turns. The classic Tactics II is the grand-daddy of all operational games. These games emphasize longer-term plans and maneuvers.

Strategic games cover a larger time scale yet, and also include unit production and, often, political factors. Units are corps and army-sized, or include entire flotillas of naval vessels.

Obviously, there's some blurring in these scales. Some games bridge the gap between Operational and Strategic (like Eastfront and, especially, Eurofront, which include elements of both.) Or, like the old classic Midway, they include an operational-level game that jumps to the tactical scale to resolve battles.

Does that answer your questions?
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Joel K
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Check out this very useful item and subsequent discussion in this fine Geeklist: Wargames??? YES YOU CAN!.
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Mark Buetow
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Got this from a friend...

Strategic: What do you want to do.
Operational: How do you want to do it.
Tactical: Who is going to do it.
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Kent Reuber
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Here's my opinion:

http://casualwargamersclub.blogspot.com/2010/02/tactical-ope...

Summary:

Strategic: involves production of new units as well as supply
Operation: involves supply of forces but not production of new units
Tactical: involves neither production nor supply (though there may be ammunition limits)
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Chris Carnes
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Martin Gallo
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As has been mentioned the lines are a little blurry but another general guideline is:

Tactical: Facing of some of the units matters.
Strategic: There is some sort of currency or resource points involved.
Operational: Everything in between.
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Pelle Nilsson
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Other ways to decide just by looking at the headers in the rulebook:

Tactical: LOS and morale
Operational: ZOC and supply
Strategic: production and diplomacy
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Andrew Wright
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Blackhorse wrote:

Great chart. This covers it completely.
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G. Harding Warren
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This is really interesting to me. Growing up on Avalon Hill games, I paid attention to their advertising descriptions and the nomenclature of the game box. The AH breakdown always seemed to go something like this:

Grand Stategic: Third Reich, Empires in Arms, Hitler's War
(the whole war, politics, diplomacy, economics)

Strategic: France 1940, Anzio, Russian Campaign, Fortress Europa (all of these covered an entire front, but did not deal with politics and production)

Operational: Air Assault on Crete, Panzergruppe Guderian, GCACW
(like, you know, a particular "operation" on a given front--a particular big attack limited in time and space)

Tactical: Panzerblitz, Squad Leader.

Somewhere in between the last two were "battle" games, like Gettysburg, Fury in the West, Bulge and Midway.

I suppose that I will need to adjust my thinking--merging what I think of "battle" and "tactical" as well as "operational" and "strategic".
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Pelle Nilsson
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What about "grand tactical"? It has been used to describe some games, by publishers and others. I believe one example is The Devil's Cauldron: The Battles for Arnhem and Nijmegen. Not sure exactly how to define it, but I would guess from the games I have seen that it deals with a battle plus some time leading up to the battle, with a map showing more than just the area of the historic battle, and sometimes linking several tactical battles into the same game, but without going to such a high scale that the game becomes more operational.
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pelni wrote:
What about "grand tactical"? It has been used to describe some games, by publishers and others. I believe one example is The Devil's Cauldron: The Battles for Arnhem and Nijmegen. Not sure exactly how to define it, but I would guess from the games I have seen that it deals with a battle plus some time leading up to the battle, with a map showing more than just the area of the historic battle, and sometimes linking several tactical battles into the same game, but without going to such a high scale that the game becomes more operational.

That's a reasonable description. You have to be careful as publisher usage can be misleading. The historical use of grand tactical is to describe the boundary between the tactical and operational level, essentially the management of a battle at the topmost level without looking too much at the detail below. (The opposite being, appropriately enough, low tactical.) Typical grand tactical games for the Napoleonic period would be Napoleon's Last Battles or (as a more modern example) the Eagles of the Empire series.

However, some publishers seem to like "grand tactical" because of the phrase "grand" as in "grandeur" and use it to imply big battles. For example I've seen it applied to battalion level Napoleonics which is actually the proverbial tactical level as there was preciously little independent maneuvering at the company level. As a rule of thumb for me, if a 19th century game includes explicit formation and facing, it's not grand tactical any more. (One of formation and/or facing might just be acceptable.)
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John Kovacs
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Blackhorse wrote:


Great chart - sums up the definitions perfectly.
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Steven
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I think 'grand tactical' would colloquially just be described as 'monster game that's at the tactical scale'. That's really how it's used, rather than being somewhere in the military doctrine spectrum.

But practically speaking what it means is that the scope of the game is so large that, in addition to the usual tactical decisions you need to make, you will need to also make decisions that are operational in nature. Decisions like redeployment of assets, concentration of forces, logistics, etc. You can see this pretty well in games like Devil's Cauldron, where the operational deployment of German forces goes hand-in-hand with the turn-to-turn tactical decisions.
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Colin Hunter
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UHB1 wrote:

Strategic: France 1940, Anzio, Russian Campaign, Fortress Europa (all of these covered an entire front, but did not deal with politics and production)
I personally would feel that these are operational (or at least some of them), plenty of operational games (OCS comes to mind) deal with entire fronts, but are operational. I think with games, you have to looks at several factors, emphasis on maneuvre and supply are operational aspects, lack of production and poltics are again operational indicators. I think in a military sense it is often easier to define, with games it is generally more complex.
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Ryan Powers
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ibn_ul_khattab wrote:
I think in a military sense it is often easier to define, with games it is generally more complex.


Yep. Largely because in games you've often got the player playing @ multiple levels at once.
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Chris Carnes
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keethrax wrote:
ibn_ul_khattab wrote:
I think in a military sense it is often easier to define, with games it is generally more complex.


Yep. Largely because in games you've often got the player playing @ multiple levels at once.


That's an excellent point!

I would add that some events occuring at the "Tactical" level can very quickly go to the the strategic level. There's a term: "Strategic Corporal" that specifically describes that.


Quote:
In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well. His actions, therefore, will directly impact the outcome of the larger operation; and he will become, as the title of this article suggests -- the Strategic Corporal.
From here:
http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/usmc/strategic_corporal....
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David Perez
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I was actually thinking about this yesterday:

Tactical/Tactics: is about the best way to achieve a victory condition
Strategy/Strategic: is about defining what counts as victory.
 
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Steven
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dpdlc wrote:
I was actually thinking about this yesterday:

Tactical/Tactics: is about the best way to achieve a victory condition
Strategy/Strategic: is about defining what counts as victory.


Unfortunately, that doesn't always work in wargames, since VCs are spelled out pretty clearly. Most every wargame out there is about figuring out how to achieve the pre-defined conditions, rather than defining them.
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gregorio avelino morin blanco
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Blackhorse wrote:


is perfect
 
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Chris Rowe
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Is there one of these levels that is generally considered easier?
 
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Not generally speaking. In the olden days, most of the really simple games were at the operational scale. Partly because the major battle games (Bulge, Gettysburg, Waterloo, etc.) easily appealed to a mass market, so simplicity was key. And partly because it's easier to gloss over details and abstract away at that level.

But these days, you can run across simpler games at all the scales.
 
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Michael Dorosh
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robbbbbb wrote:
It's a question of scale and focus. "Tactical" games center on individual units moving around on the battlefield. Games like Advanced Squad Leader or Wings of War are tactical games. They're small-scale unit actions, where turns are on the order of seconds to minutes.

Operational games cover larger unit formations and consequently larger time scales. Units involved are battalion to division-sized, and play covers hours on up to two week turns. The classic Tactics II is the grand-daddy of all operational games. These games emphasize longer-term plans and maneuvers.

Strategic games cover a larger time scale yet, and also include unit production and, often, political factors. Units are corps and army-sized, or include entire flotillas of naval vessels.

Obviously, there's some blurring in these scales. Some games bridge the gap between Operational and Strategic (like Eastfront and, especially, Eurofront, which include elements of both.) Or, like the old classic Midway, they include an operational-level game that jumps to the tactical scale to resolve battles.

Does that answer your questions?


Wargamers often don't make the proper distinction, but in a military sense, these definitions might help:

unit - battalion
sub-unit - company, battery, squadron
formation - brigade, division, corps, army, army group

I see you've used the terms unit and formation interchangeably; no reason not to in wargaming but if one thinks about the way the military uses them, the distinctions between tactical, operational and strategic games also becomes more clear. Of course, the lines blur again when you add definitions like 'grand tactical', etc., into the mix.
 
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Michael Dorosh
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possumbait wrote:
Blackhorse wrote:

Great chart. This covers it completely.


Except a battle occurs at the operational level, it's certainly not as black and white as the chart suggests. At the least, they could have put it on the dividing line between the two. It would be unusual to consider a divisional level game as "tactical", or in the same league as Squad Leader or PanzerBlitz.
 
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