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Subject: The illusion of battlefield command in strategic level wargames rss

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Pete Belli
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One of the biggest challenges faced by a wargame designer pounding out a strategic level simulation is the proper separation of grand strategy from battlefield leadership. For the purposes of this article a "strategic level" title will be defined as a game portraying a situation in which a player represents the highest level of command authority for a nation or an empire. Two examples might be Napoleon in a game about Europe between 1805 and 1815 or Stalin in a game about WWII. In certain circumstances a player might represent a theater commander in a conflict of such epic proportions that the historical leader acted as a sort of viceroy under the higher national leadership authority.




Selfishly, I'm going to concentrate on the American Civil War. In a strategic level game depicting the War Between the States we should assume that each player represents the national command authority of the United States and the Confederacy. In other words, the Union player represents President Lincoln and (perhaps) the Federal high command plus the most influential Cabinet members; the Confederate player would represent Davis and (perhaps) his military advisors.

Decisions made in this arena would be represented in game terms with a largely abstract system of battle resolution. Both leaders would approve the assignment of generals and the transfer of major troop formations. Each leader could give his blessing to campaign plans submitted by army commanders... or deny permission for military maneuvers he deemed too risky. Both leaders might offer operational suggestions to army officers. In extreme situations Lincoln might try to build a fire under a sluggish general, taking direct action to get an army moving. Davis frequently approved the transfer of formations as small as a brigade when emergencies threatened a crucial theater of operations.

However, the president (and the national command authority) would not be handling troop dispositions on the battlefield. Combat systems with extra chrome are, in my judgment, beyond the scope of this type of game. Such mechanics should be stripped to the basic framework and only the most relevant additional rules for cavalry, leadership, and similar elements should appear in the game.




Although I am reluctant to focus on any particular wargame design one of the most flagrant examples is provided by The American Civil War from Eagle Games. This system features a "battle board" with each player deploying his miniatures on the left flank, on the right flank, in reserve, etc.

No, no, and no. If a design is going to remain true to its theme then battles within a campaign should be represented by a relatively simple combat system that does not allow the player (representing his nation's supreme command authority, remember) to fiddle with such mundane elements of the military art. Davis imagined himself as a military mind of the first order and he frequently meddled in operational planning. However, he did not tell Robert E. Lee how to arrange his divisions and brigades on the battlefield. Lincoln suffered from crucial mistakes made by generals like Burnside, Hunter, Banks, and Butler but the president did not use the telegraph to babysit these military blunderers.

However, we must permit the overworked and underpaid wargame designer to exercise a bit of artistic flexibility. When the confident Jeff Davis and a majority of the Confederate cabinet approved Lee's plan to invade the North in 1863 these men gave the general a healthy portion of discretion. It would be assumed by the national command authority on both sides of the firing line that a competent general would advance, do battle, and retreat according to the principles of war. Therefore, a player should be permitted to maneuver his formations as he sees fit within the context of the larger strategic outline. This might include some elements that, strictly speaking, might not belong in the decision-making loop of a strategic level game.




This blurring of the line between grand strategy and operational decisions is essential for a smooth play experience... the classic Victory Games title is a good example. The best designs keep a player focused on the big strategic picture while offering enough options to avoid placing the contestants in the role of a croupier simply pushing units in the direction of the enemy.
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pete belli wrote:
For the purposes of this article a "strategic level" title will be defined as a game portraying a situation in which a player represents the highest level of command authority for a nation or an empire. Two examples might be Napoleon in a game about Europe between 1805 and 1815 or Stalin in a game about WWII. In certain circumstances a player might represent a theater commander in a conflict of such epic proportions that the historical leader acted as a sort of viceroy under the higher national leadership authority.

As a designer, what do you think the advantages are of games built from the ground-up with this presupposition? What are the implications of games that purport to be strategic level without limiting the decision abstraction to just those of high command, as specified here?
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Pete - while I agree with you from an accuracy/simulationist viewpoint, the problem I see with this approach is that I fear it would produce a rather dull game for wargamers. The fact of the matter is that most wargamers want to push panzers even at the strategic and grand-strategic levels. Basically, they want to play several layers of command simultaneously. Think about WW2 and specifically the ETO in 1944. If I'm playing a strategic game and concerning myself with what someone in my shoes as the national command authority would actually be doing in France in late 1944, I, as Roosevelt and Eisenhower, would issue orders to basically two guys on the ground - Monty and Bradley. That leaves me with two counters to push, since at my level, I don't order corps, let alone divisions. Realistic, but, frankly, boring. Now, I see you also recognize this extreme case as not ideal either, but I will argue for erring on the side of more detail rather than less. I want more to do, even if giving me these extra layers of command decisions is not an accurate protrayal of what someone in the real world at my level of command would generally concern themselves with!

Hitler was accused of micromanaging the war for Germany, concerning himself with the dispostions of incredibly small units. Obviously, as a national leader in a real world situation, this was a really bad idea. However, it can make for a hell of a cool wargaming situation, hence World in Flames!
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Robert Ridgeway
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Most Grand-Strategic games that come to my mind fit your criteria [assuming I'm on the same page]: "World War I" and "Hitler's War" being a quick couple of examples.

Where Battle Boards are introduced (almost as an afterthought) in games like "Alexandros", "Kingmaker", and the optional rules for "Luftwaffe", they almost always are so simplistic (again, that afterthought 'feel') that one look tells you they are neither worthy simulations nor worth the trouble.
Yet it's notable that the lack of ("zoom-in" to individual battles) operational finessing in "Imperium Romanum II" seems to be the complaint against that game.

Nevertheless, I can understand the desire & practice (time & dedication alone to be wondered at) of playing out in detail any battle that develops in the greater scheme of the Campaign via a different game system dedicated to accurately simulating the operational level, translating the results back to the original game. The Reductio ad absurdum of this we've all dreamed of, and was perfectly lampooned in an early issue of the "General" (with an illustration of an 18-wheeler delivering "The Ultimate Wargame" to the OC gamer), devolving each level of the combat experience down to the man-to-man level and working back up - for every step of each battle!
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Randall Shaw
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"Lincoln suffered from crucial mistakes made by generals like Burnside, Hunter, Banks, and Butler but the president did not use the telegraph to babysit these military blunderers."

Didn't Lincoln take far more than a passing interest in Stonewall's Shenandoah Campaign? I seem to remember him basically telling his generals in that operation how to position their troops, especially in the latter stages when the Federals were attempting to capture Jackson and his command.
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Robert Ridgeway
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desertfox2004 wrote:
Basically, they want to play several layers of command simultaneously.

Which is perfectly achieved by the abstraction of the player assuming/switching roles of both CinCs AND Generals as the game demands; or via the elusive* "Command Structure" game where teams assume specific levels of command with control strictly within their limited purviews, passing on orders to lower levels with more detailed levels of duties.

* = my dream game of SPI's "War In Europe"
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Agree with you, Pete.

Looking at it from a mapboard perspective, I think at the strategic level games divided by areas (like Europe Engulfed) or large hexes (like Eurofront) are more (yes, more) realistic than strategic level games with tiny hexes. Because at the national leadership level, it's far more likely the leader would say, "I want this army to secure the Donbas" rather than, "I want this army to follow this specific route from obscure village A to obscure village B".
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Michael Novak
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Pete,

As usual you produced a very interesting read. I agree in principle, but worry about the croupier role you pointed out. Some other points:

1) Perhaps some conflicts better lend themselves to switching hats, between the strategic, operational and even tactical levels than others?

2) Why not try to mix levels? Often I lament situations that I find myself in a situation on a lower lever (operational and tactical), and I wonder that if somehow a different strategic decision had been made things would be quite different. This to me is the beauty and spirit of war gaming. It would be the mark of a truly clever and graceful design that would allow one to do this seamlessly.

3) I think it may be easier to make an operational game and give the player a few strategic decisions (see Liberty Roads), rather than the other way around: a strategic game where players are constantly making operational decisions.
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Pete Belli
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Good questions!

logopolys wrote:
As a designer, what do you think the advantages are of games built from the ground-up with this presupposition?


There could be two major advantages. The first might be a more accurate representation of the challenges faced by the historical leader in the conflict as he or she makes crucial decisions. The second might be a crisper, cleaner play experience because the contestants are not bogged down with fiddly battle rules.

Quote:
What are the implications of games that purport to be strategic level without limiting the decision abstraction to just those of high command, as specified here?


In my opinion, they move a design further along the scale in the direction of game at the expense of simulation. Adding a nifty battle system to a strategic level game might make the game more fun for players who wish to assume multiple roles at several different rungs of the ladder of military command. This is fine... I can enjoy that once in a while myself. However, this usually doesn't represent the historical decision-making process of the leader involved.
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Pete Belli
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desertfox2004 wrote:
...I will argue for erring on the side of more detail rather than less. I want more to do, even if giving me these extra layers of command decisions is not an accurate protrayal of what someone in the real world at my level of command would generally concern themselves with!


A valid point.

In the article I described the blurring of the boundary between command levels. Carefully crafted designs allow a leader at the strategic level a chance to be involved with decisions that, from a strictly historical perspective, belong at a lower level of command.

To use your WWII example, in a game about the European Theater a general like Eisenhower might be considered a viceroy operating under the national command authority. In the SPI classic Battle for Germany the American player handles corps-sized units with an abstract battle system. This is a good mix, in my opinion.
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Pete Belli
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AnalogGamer wrote:
The Reductio ad absurdum of this we've all dreamed of, and was perfectly lampooned in an early issue of the "General" (with an illustration of an 18-wheeler delivering "The Ultimate Wargame" to the OC gamer), devolving each level of the combat experience down to the man-to-man level and working back up - for every step of each battle!




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big_m0dem wrote:
I think it may be easier to make an operational game and give the player a few strategic decisions (see Liberty Roads), rather than the other way around: a strategic game where players are constantly making operational decisions.


An excellent observation.
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Pete Belli
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Sokadr wrote:
Didn't Lincoln take far more than a passing interest in Stonewall's Shenandoah Campaign? I seem to remember him basically telling his generals in that operation how to position their troops, especially in the latter stages when the Federals were attempting to capture Jackson and his command.


You nailed it.

This is a perfect example of the hazy border between the strategic level game and the operational level game. In a design which portrays units in division and corps formation (Lincoln was juggling forces commanded by Banks, Fremont, and McDowell) and relatively small hex sizes (15 or 20 miles across, perhaps) the player would represent a national leader making operational decisions.

I can offer you a similar situation on a slightly larger strategic scale:

As the Vicksburg campaign developed Davis began shifting formations around the military chessboard. First he sent an infantry division from Bragg in Tennessee to Pemberton in Mississippi. Then the Confederate president took most of Pemberton's cavalry away and sent it (along with Pemberton's most aggressive combat leader, Earl Van Dorn) to Tennessee. Finally, as things started to turn ugly Davis railroaded units into Mississippi from as far away as South Carolina. While all this was happening Davis was giving Pemberton conflicting orders right over the head of the CSA theater commander Joe Johnston.

Man, I love the wargame hobby!
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desertfox2004 wrote:
Pete - while I agree with you from an accuracy/simulationist viewpoint, the problem I see with this approach is that I fear it would produce a rather dull game for wargamers. The fact of the matter is that most wargamers want to push panzers even at the strategic and grand-strategic levels. Basically, they want to play several layers of command simultaneously. Think about WW2 and specifically the ETO in 1944. If I'm playing a strategic game and concerning myself with what someone in my shoes as the national command authority would actually be doing in France in late 1944, I, as Roosevelt and Eisenhower, would issue orders to basically two guys on the ground - Monty and Bradley. That leaves me with two counters to push, since at my level, I don't order corps, let alone divisions. Realistic, but, frankly, boring. Now, I see you also recognize this extreme case as not ideal either, but I will argue for erring on the side of more detail rather than less. I want more to do, even if giving me these extra layers of command decisions is not an accurate protrayal of what someone in the real world at my level of command would generally concern themselves with!



If I am being Roosevelt I would also be concerned with Italy, China, South-West Pacific and Pacific fronts, industrial production, research and a lot of other things. If I am only concerned with ETO I am more likely to be Ike in which case I am concerned down to at least army, perhaps corps level.

What the OP rightly identifies is that if you are reproducing command at a given level than you should correctly identify what that command does. Monster games that ask you to be every officer on the Eastfront for the entire war may be fun [NIMHO] but take far too long and do not reproduce the efforts of an individual or individual + support advisor team and the resultant outcome.
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Darrell Hanning
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Pete, in your enthusiasm for pointing wargamers in the direction that you think they should be pointing, I think you overlook just what the average wargamer wants. The latter looks suspiciously like the preeminent factor in achieving fiscally sound wargame publishing.

And without fiscally sound wargame publishing, there frankly isn't any wargame publishing, at all.
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For all levels of wargames, my own paradigm is that the number of manoeuver units ONE gamer has to manage has to be a reasonable number, not thousands upon thousands of counters!

A manoeuver unit could be composed of many counters, a stack is definitely one, but it could also be a small group of units acting toward the same goal.

An ideal number is between twelve (the max number of troops in an infantry squad that an NCO can command)
and sixteen (the number of peices in a chess game). Twenty units is kind a close to the maximum that I think should be used.

In many wargames you wear too manmy hats, suffering "information overload". The game system is playing/controlling the action, not the player, who is too busy just pushing "correctly" his myriad of counters around! whistle


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Pete Belli
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DarrellKH wrote:
Pete, in your enthusiasm for pointing wargamers in the direction that you think they should be pointing, I think you overlook just what the average wargamer wants. The latter looks suspiciously like the preeminent factor in achieving fiscally sound wargame publishing.

And without fiscally sound wargame publishing, there frankly isn't any wargame publishing, at all.


Good stuff.

We'll have to leave the discussion of fiscally sound wargame publishing for another day. In my opinion, the hobby is not financially viable in the long term.

Your other point is right on target. The buying customers do seem to gravitate in the direction of those games.

However, truly inspired designs can meet both expectations: they offer a reasonably accurate representation of strategic level command while entertaining the player.
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Pete, are your design parameters limited to military decisions or is there room for political and domestic considerations which have an effect on the military matters?

In Lincoln's case the war became quickly unpopular and he had to worry if he could even be reelected. Although his initial goal was to preserve the Union, he eventually had to deal with the issue of slavery. There are others to be sure.

I thought I'd bring up the question because these things are hard to simulate and their importance is argued about by historians.

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licinius wrote:
For all levels of wargames, my own paradigm is that the number of manoeuver units ONE gamer has to manage has to be a reasonable number, not thousands upon thousands of counters!

A manoeuver unit could be composed of many counters, a stack is definitely one, but it could also be a small group of units acting toward the same goal.

An ideal number is between twelve (the max number of troops in an infantry squad that an NCO can command)
and sixteen (the number of peices in a chess game). Twenty units is kind a close to the maximum that I think should be used.

In many wargames you wear too manmy hats, suffering "information overload". The game system is playing/controlling the action, not the player, who is too busy just pushing corrctly his myriad of counters around!


You hit upon a important criteria for games in which I am interested...

Hopefully Pete won't be too disgusted with me! , but I am playing with a design that melds strategic with tactical, and one reason it may be viable is the very reason you mentioned: there is NOT information overload. This makes the hat switching tolerable and hopefully more seamless.
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Pete Belli
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fambans wrote:
Pete, are your design parameters limited to military decisions or is there room for political and domestic considerations which have an effect on the military matters?


This is a crucial element. Excellent question.

Many strategic level wargames (as defined in the article) pay little attention to the vital political and economic decisions made by a leader at this level. Instead, the game might focus on maneuvering formations on the battlefield and these kinds of decisions are essentially outside the scope of a national leader.

I could mention For the People as a good example of a game about the Civil War which includes many important political elements.
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I note that: "Lincoln’s War is a two to four player, “broad strokes” political game simulating the Civil War, covering the 1861 call to arms through the fateful 1864 Presidential election." is taking a very long time to climb the MMP P500. This is the sort of thing I want (as a confirmed monster-hater) but not what most of my peers apparently want.

I'm with Elijah and Carl on this. IMHO, any game with more than 400 counters represents a poor choice of scale by the designer. There is a role-playing aspect to wargaming to be sure, and it is very confusing to be Lord and Vassal at the same time.

I even think there is an argument that point-to-point and area movement systems have advantages over hexes in portrayal of grand strategic games. I am currently playing Julian: Triumph Before the Storm, which uses hexes, and which has a similar theme to The Fall of Rome - protecting the Roman Empire from barbarian incursion (although the former is designed for two-player and the latter is a solo game). Overall I prefer the area movement treatment of FoR. When one is Caesar, things should not be too fiddly, even if you do occasionally run around the Empire to lead your troops.
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The problem with many "strategic" games is that they focus almost exclusively on the military aspects of the situation. If the focus is to be strategic then there have to be far more developed production and societal routines. Let's take the American Civil War for example.

The ability to field armies was a logistical nightmare, especially for the Confederacy. The ability to harness society in general to support the war aims was critical. What was the appropriate path for the state to pursue with respect to those factors? Certainly the Confederacy could have attempted a more centrally directed war effort at the potential cost of some of its component states or forces.

Similary, the Union had a potential technological advantage which was never really pushed (e.g. Spencers, etc.) which could have had a strategic effect. The attempt to harness manpower led to the draft riots but was that the only effect? Some games include an 1864 election effect which usually hangs on battlefield success. While that is certainly what did happen it is not the measure of what could have happened if the Union government chose differently either technologically or from a manpower development standpoint.

McClellan's approach to the suppression of the rebellion may have had drastically different results (apart from his military shortcomings). The "victory" conditions might have to change as a result of the strategic choices (e.g. a Union fighting for reunion as opposed to emancipation). Sherman was an asset if destruction of the Confederacy was pursued but would have been a detriment to a coaxing strategy. Please note that I am not advocating that mistakes were made historically, merely that there were other strategic choices that were not followed which could have had an impact on the war.

I have never seen a game truly attempt the strategic focus. Strategic games tend to be far more operational in orientation with the overall strategic leadership abstracted. Players in strategic wargames fall to that level (at which some chrome is inevitable) as they are not given true strategic license.

I think this comes as we tend to see our games as military, rather than societal, conflict simulations. Plus, the sheer volume and variety of the options available to the strategic decision maker tend to dwarf the ability of the simulation to contain. Certainly, my examples of non-military strategic choices are not exhaustive and as time goes on the scope of such choices (e.g. in WW II) expands geometrically. However, the lack of such choices forces the simulation to "overinvolve" the player at the operational level as too many of their choices have had to be preset.

There is much development that would have to occur to create those systems, although computer games have certainly broken some ground in these areas. The ability to harness those into a workable gaming system would certainly be rewarded.

Going back to the initial definition of "strategic" in the post, Napoleon and Stalin certainly had more on their minds than where the next corps would be placed. Giving free rein to their choices is what will lift the strategic game from its operational anchor.
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meward wrote:
I have never seen a game truly attempt the strategic focus.


I respectfully suggest trying:

Empire of the Sun

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Good points Pete, and commenters.

When I play a strategic level game, I really don't consider myself just to be the national leader, or even the military leader of a country. I see myself as a combination of the political leadership and general staff, plus theater or army/fleet commander.

That doesn't really bother me. It's a bit of an abstraction.

I'd love to see Lincoln's War get published - that sounds like an overt effort to put the players squarely in Lincoln's & Davis' shoes.
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licinius wrote:
For all levels of wargames, my own paradigm is that the number of manoeuver units ONE gamer has to manage has to be a reasonable number, not thousands upon thousands of counters!

A manoeuver unit could be composed of many counters, a stack is definitely one, but it could also be a small group of units acting toward the same goal.

An ideal number is between twelve (the max number of troops in an infantry squad that an NCO can command)
and sixteen (the number of peices in a chess game). Twenty units is kind a close to the maximum that I think should be used.

In many wargames you wear too manmy hats, suffering "information overload". The game system is playing/controlling the action, not the player, who is too busy just pushing corrctly his myriad of counters around! whistle




It's interesting to note that John Hill wrote about all this in the early 1970s in MOVES. The concepts haven't changed.
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