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  • Strategic "level" of wargames

    As I'm learning more about wargaming, I now understand the differences between strategic level (i.e. gameboard is the world map, or a continent), operational level (gameboard could be a country or part of a country), and tactical level (gameboard is an individual battlefield). I can see how playing a game where you are trying to take over Europe is different than trying to have your tanks maneuver against a machine gun nest. (I'm oversimplifying here, to get to the crux of my question.)

    In various postings, though, I have seen people requesting "level" wargames with what seem to me to be nearly indistinguishable differences. Someone, for example, may request a "battalion-level" WWII game, whereas someone else may request a "division-level" game.

    Would the gameplay and strategy really differ that much between those two unit sizes? Or between brigade and division level? Or squad and company level? I guess I just don't see it. I've been playing Sons of Liberty, in which the basic units are regiments or batteries. The gameplay doesn't seem much different from, say Panzer General (which I think uses battalion-sized units).

    I don't know if I'm explaining this as well as I can here... I'm just not sure I see how there could be much of a difference in gameplay when you get to the level of individual unit sizes (other than the 3 big levels mentioned above). Anyone have any insight? Am I just dumb and oblivious?
    "I am not an atomic playboy."
    Vice Admiral William P. Blandy

  • #2
    Unit sizes are often used to determine the level of a game, everything below company is tactical, company to division is operational and everything above is strategic.

    A battalion-size game simply means that the most common combat units found in the game will be battalions.
    Last edited by Boonierat; 20 Jul 07, 11:13.

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    • #3
      There is a whole other level of course called "grand startegy". One of the most important measures of successful grand startegy is the wars and battles you do not have to fight due to success in using other means to achieve these goal. Since most wargamers are looking to actual fight a war, this is often lacking in most "wargames". Paradox has attempted to add that dimension in its most strategic games, EU, CH and Viki, although I suspect even many of the players of those miss some of the depth since again their goal is to achieve their end by fighting not by avoiding fighting.

      If you have EUIII and want to try this try playing Bavaria with a goal of uniting Germany and a self enforced house rule of never declaring war on another Catholic state. Makes for a very different and challenging games.
      Boston Strong!

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      • #4
        There are factors to each of those small unit (large scale) levels of wargaming you are talking about.

        To answer your question at the broadest level there probably isn't much difference at any scale to the basic goals of warfare. If you have a squad-level game you are trying to outflank, out maneuver, bring the most weapons to bear on your enemy, and so forth - the same as if you were playing a divisional level game. The devil is in the details.

        A tiny unit game might be focused on the quality and types of weapons which each squad is employing, and the tactics each force typically used for them. Where do you deploy your heavy machine gun to get the most bang for your buck? You worry about elevations of individual units/men.

        A mid-level battalion game will bring in some new elements such as command structure, recon, different types of fighting units, and obviously larger and more diverse types of terrain. As the size of units goes up, typically time scale gets larger too - which means you have to consider weather changes, time changes, supply, and so forth.

        Nearing the top end of the scale, individual weapon types become less important, and aggregates of weapon types become more useful (a Panzer Division for instance). Particulars of the battlefield become less important (such as certain terrain, elevation, and so forth) and you start to worry more about the requirements of the larger force (such as bridging capabilities, AA protection from theatre-wide air assets, and the ability to penetrate behind enemy lines such as blitzkrieg).

        To sum up there are significant differences, these are just my 5 minute attempt to write some up. Oddly enough, in my experience these differences are so significant that you seldom find players who cross breeds so-to-speak. You either like pushing panzer divisions towards Moscow, or you like taking a handful of panzer grenadiers to clear out a town.
        Our forefathers died to give us freedom, not free stuff.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by mirrorshades View Post
          . . . I'm just not sure I see how there could be much of a difference in gameplay when you get to the level of individual unit sizes (other than the 3 big levels mentioned above). Anyone have any insight? Am I just dumb and oblivious?
          You're just newer to wargaming than some. If you stick with wargaming long enough, some of the finer distinctions may come to matter to you. Mainly they matter to wargame designers.

          I've called myself a wargamer since I played my first one in 1968, but I think the general terms strategic, operational, and tactical are sufficient. They're sometimes used pretty loosely, though, which can cause some confusion. And then some folks insist on adding terms like grand strategic or even grand tactical (though you don't hear the latter too much, and I'm not sure I've ever understood it; ultra tactical is more common and makes more sense to me).

          Anyhow, as you probably already know from experience, tactical games have a whole different feel to them than strategic games. In a tactical game, there's a lot more minutia -- weapon types, morale ratings, formations, terrain detail, and so forth -- but the objective is usually very straightforward: e.g., "take that hill" or "control these crossroads." In a strategic game, it tends to be the other way around: much less detail and more abstraction, but the objectives can be complex, requiring long-range planning (which can include such things as production, supply, air and naval superiority, and sometimes even research and design). Operational-level games are in between: some detail, but not too much; some long-range planning, but not too much.

          As to designations like "battalion level," they usually refer to the unit size that a typical unit-counter (game piece) represents. So, in a battalion-level wargame, a single infantry unit will represent a battalion of infantry. (But once in a while, somebody uses the term differently, referring to what the whole game represents. In that case, a battalion-level game is one where the whole game represents the activities of a single battalion. And then each individual unit might be a squad or fire team).

          IMO, battalion-level games (where each unit is a battalion) are the dividing line between tactical and operational. I tend to think of such games as operational, but some might call them tactical. Anything below battalion level (i.e., where the typical unit represents a company or platoon or squad or anything smaller than a battalion) is tactical.

          And I'd say brigade-level games (where each unit is a brigade) are at the upper end of the operational level. IMO brigade-level games are clearly operational. But once you get to division-level or higher (where a typical unit represents a division, corps, or something bigger), it's definitely a strategy-level wargame.

          This jargon works for most post-Renaissance-era games. When you get into ancient and medieval games, you start dealing with legions, cohorts, phalanxes, schiltrons, and other weird groupings. But warfare in that era was pretty different anyway, so the whole scale of battle changes, and your perspective will change too.

          You can certainly play, enjoy, and do well at wargames without ever knowing any of this, btw. All these terms are just conveniences for talking about wargames. When you're into playing one, it becomes evident what it is, and you can dispense with all the jargon.

          Hope I've added clarity instead of reducing it.
          --Patrick Carroll


          "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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          • #6
            Games are tactical ie local events, operational ie theatre wide potential or grand strategy ie politics research as well as military operations.

            Those are fairly firm and fast. They can be played on a table, on a computer, in real time, and in turns. But the above distinctions are fairly set.

            Now, in the case of a person, squad, company, battalion, regiment, division or corps, it's mainly about the scale of the depiction. I have played games termed Battalion level games, and the "divisions" are composed of multiple units. Games called Division level games don't subdivide into individual units as much is all.

            The Longest Day from AH has 21 units (counters) making up the 12SS Panzer Division. It's a battalion level board game.

            Commander Europe at War is a grand strategy design, and a "unit" is actually closer to an army corps or group for instance.

            Board games that are operational often are easy to blur together. Because it's easy to call a game a battalion level game if it is based off battalions, or a divisional level game, if you manuever divisions. But usually its about the primary unit size of the game that matters. And often both unit sizes will be present.

            Squad Leader is called squad level, even though the forces involved are actually company and platoon level quantities. It's not the sum total of forces involved though.
            Life is change. Built models for decades.
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            • #7
              I still think one of the best definition of the operational level is the one given by Norm Koger in the introduction to the TOAW manual:

              Think of the operational level as a view of the battlefield on a scale just exceeding that at which different ranges of various direct fire weapons are significant.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Boonierat View Post
                I still think one of the best definition of the operational level is the one given by Norm Koger in the introduction to the TOAW manual:

                Think of the operational level as a view of the battlefield on a scale just exceeding that at which different ranges of various direct fire weapons are significant.
                Er, why is that one of the best? I can see several problems with it, just at first glance:

                1. What would it mean to say the "view of the battlefield" is "on a scale just exceeding" a certain weapon range? If a rifled musket has a range of, say, 400 yards, is the whole wargame map supposed to represent an area 401 yards on a side? That doesn't make sense.

                2. What kind of measure is "different ranges of various direct fire weapons"? That'd include everything from a thrown rock to a sniper rifle and beyond. A lot of leeway in there!

                3. What does "significant" mean?

                I find the "definition" completely confusing myself.

                I think what Norm is trying to say is something more like this:

                In a hex-grid operational-level wargame, the area represented by a hex is usually just a little greater than the area occupied by typical units or the range at which they engaged one another in combat.

                This justifies the common operational-level wargame rule which says most units have to be in adjacent hexes in order to engage in combat with each other. (But indirect fire and such may take place over multiple hexes.)

                And my rewritten definition (two paragraphs above) covers ancient and medieval warfare, where "direct-fire weapons" were far less prevalent than hand-to-hand weapons. There a hex has to be big enough for a Roman cohort to fit in, but the "range" of their swords is pretty much irrelevant.
                --Patrick Carroll


                "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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                • #9
                  Wow... lots of good info. Thanks guys.

                  Nerds.

                  "I am not an atomic playboy."
                  Vice Admiral William P. Blandy

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Patrick Carroll View Post
                    In a hex-grid operational-level wargame, the area represented by a hex is usually just a little greater than the area occupied by typical units or the range at which they engaged one another in combat.
                    Err...can really see how your definition is any more clearer to be honest.

                    Originally posted by Patrick Carroll View Post
                    And my rewritten definition (two paragraphs above) covers ancient and medieval warfare, where "direct-fire weapons" were far less prevalent than hand-to-hand weapons. There a hex has to be big enough for a Roman cohort to fit in, but the "range" of their swords is pretty much irrelevant.
                    Moot point. Norm was talking of course of the period covered in the game (1939-55), not the medieval era, where the operational concept didn't exist.


                    Another confusing point is that the terms tactical and operational might have different meanings depending on the period represented, for example a regimental-level game about the American Civil War is considered a tactical game while the same scale set in WW2 would be operational.
                    Last edited by Boonierat; 21 Jul 07, 01:33.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Boonierat View Post
                      Err...can really see how your definition is any more clearer to be honest.
                      To each his own. But here's what Norm said:

                      Think of the operational level as a view of the battlefield on a scale just exceeding that at which different ranges of various direct fire weapons are significant.
                      The first thing that gets me scratching my head is the word battlefield. No way in hell would I ever have though of a hex (or pair of hexes) as a battlefield. To me, the word battlefield -- especially in a tactical- or operational-level game -- would refer to the whole mapboard (or most of it).

                      After that, he loses me by mentioning "direct fire weapons," which limits the time period to his particular game and doesn't cover operational-level wargames in general.


                      Moot point. Norm was talking of course of the period covered in the game (1939-55), not the medieval era, where the operational concept didn't exist.
                      Yeah, but if we're trying to divide wargames into convenient types so that a newbie might know what he's getting into, it doesn't matter in the least whether the term "operational" was actually used in an earlier period. The question is what the term is going to mean to us wargamers today.


                      Another confusing point is that the terms tactical and operational might have different meanings depending on the period represented, for example a regimental-level game about the American Civil War is considered a tactical game while the same scale set in WW2 would be operational.
                      I disagree with the last part. IMO, a wargame where a typical unit is an ACW regiment would be an operational-level game. An example is the Avalon Hill board game Bull Run. It covers First Manassas in its entirety, and typical infantry units are regiments that can be joined together into brigades.

                      Again, I think it's important that we stick to speaking here of what tactical, operational, and strategic wargames are -- which may not be the same thing as what tactical, operational, and strategic military encounters are (or were) in real life.
                      --Patrick Carroll


                      "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Patrick Carroll View Post
                        Again, I think it's important that we stick to speaking here of what tactical, operational, and strategic wargames are -- which may not be the same thing as what tactical, operational, and strategic military encounters are (or were) in real life.
                        Glad you make this distinction. I'm not very familiar with wargaming but I looked into 'real life' levels a lot and got confused while reading this thread.

                        As a fast role of thumb and allowing for some overlap I'd say:
                        tactical: all encounters up to battles at the divisional level. E.g. Battle of Arnhem was conducted by 1st Airborne Division.
                        operational: campaigns (as a series of battles) planned and conducted by corps, armies and army groups. To continue with the same example: Operation Market Garden, consisted of a series of battles by several airborne divisions and by XXX Corps (part of 2nd British Army) planned by the staff of Field Marshall Montgomery, head of 21 Army Group.
                        strategic: all activities conducted at a level higher by units bigger than the above: e.g. Eisenhower planned as head of SHAFE his strategy of a broad approach over the whole width of the European Theater of Operations.
                        BoRG

                        You may not be interested in War, but War is interested in You - Leon Trotski, June 1919.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by captainsennef View Post
                          Glad you make this distinction. I'm not very familiar with wargaming but I looked into 'real life' levels a lot and got confused while reading this thread.

                          As a fast role of thumb and allowing for some overlap I'd say:
                          tactical: all encounters up to battles at the divisional level. E.g. Battle of Arnhem was conducted by 1st Airborne Division.
                          operational: campaigns (as a series of battles) planned and conducted by corps, armies and army groups. To continue with the same example: Operation Market Garden, consisted of a series of battles by several airborne divisions and by XXX Corps (part of 2nd British Army) planned by the staff of Field Marshall Montgomery, head of 21 Army Group.
                          strategic: all activities conducted at a level higher by units bigger than the above: e.g. Eisenhower planned as head of SHAFE his strategy of a broad approach over the whole width of the European Theater of Operations.

                          I've been reading military history for about four decades now, and frankly I've never found any clear, indisputable definitions of "tactics" or "strategy" (or related terms like "grand tactics" and "operations"). I've read plenty of attempts at defining these terms, but the fact remains that different writers use them in different ways. As long as you're just reading a particular book or article, there's no problem; you get used to how that author is using the terms.

                          But when we're trying to mentally organize wargames into broad classes -- tactical wargames, operational wargames, and strategic wargames -- the important thing is to convey some sense of what the game player can expect to experience in each different kind of game.

                          Basically, we're trying to explain how Advanced Squad Leader, Battle of the Bulge, and Advanced Third Reich differ from each other.
                          --Patrick Carroll


                          "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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                          • #14
                            I have always thought this was pretty straight forward. The difference between the strategic level of command and the tactic level of command is not hard to find, regardless of age or the size of forces that are involved. Just look it up in any textbook or dictionary on the subject and everybody says the same.

                            The operational level can however often become hard to explain, and its more of a mindset than a set of fixed rules. The operational level of command mainly coordinates the minute details of tactics with the overarching goals of strategy.
                            The lower tactical units levels fights battles, but the opearational level coordinates these units in their efforts aimed at achiving the greater strategic objective. Combat support in the form of logistics and fire support is also distributed and planned on the operational level. How deep the operational level goes into tactical details can vary, but the important thing is that it implements the strategic goal onto the battlefield. The operational level is in other words more a method than a scale of warfare.

                            Now on to the wargames.

                            A good rule of thumb IMO to tell if a wargame is strategic or tactical is if LOS (line of sight) is implemented. If its not there then the tactics in not either, and the game is purely about strategy.

                            The operational level games are however a bit harder to define, but I would say that they are the games that offers you command of the combat support elements. A game that enables you to plan out your logistics in some manner at least aspires to be on the operational arena. The goal of such a game is not to just beat the enemy forces at hand. Its instead about completing the overall strategic goal, to invade an island or to defend a province. Something that isnt done on one battlefield, but instead is its own campaign on its own.

                            Tactical level games
                            ASL (boardgame)
                            Steelpanthers (computer)

                            Strategic level games

                            Axis and Allies (boardgame)
                            Hearts of Iron (computer)

                            Operational level games

                            (Qualified guess) EastFront II (boardgame)
                            Conquest of the Aegean and of course TOAW (computer)
                            "The secret of war lies in the communications" - Napoleon Bonaparte

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Pergite View Post
                              I have always thought this was pretty straight forward. The difference between the strategic level of command and the tactic level of command is not hard to find, regardless of age or the size of forces that are involved. Just look it up in any textbook or dictionary on the subject and everybody says the same.
                              Maybe. But what they say isn't always helpful when you're looking at a particular military engagement and wondering whether it's "strategic" or "tactical."

                              A couple quick dictionary definitions:

                              Strategy: "the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions"

                              Tactics: "the science and art of disposing and maneuvering forces in combat"

                              (from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition)

                              So, which are you doing when you sit down to play a game of -- well, most any wargame? You're working out how to "meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions" and you're "disposing and maneuvering forces in combat." Even in a stylized wargame like chess, you're doing both. And in any real-life military engagement, you're doing both.

                              However, I did come across an enlightening footnote while reading A. T. Mahan's Influence of Sea Power on History. Mahan says a lot of confusion over the terms "strategy" and "tactics" could be resolved just by remembering that tactics has to do with what happens when two opposing forces have come into contact. Strategy is what happens before opposing forces come into contact. I kinda like that way of looking at it, and it fits with the above dictionary definitions too.

                              The operational level can however often become hard to explain, and its more of a mindset than a set of fixed rules. The operational level of command mainly coordinates the minute details of tactics with the overarching goals of strategy. . . .
                              Which pretty well happens in almost all wargames -- or any other kind of game, for that matter.


                              Now on to the wargames.

                              A good rule of thumb IMO to tell if a wargame is strategic or tactical is if LOS (line of sight) is implemented. If its not there then the tactics in not either, and the game is purely about strategy.
                              That is a good rule of thumb. It may fail, though, when dealing with ancient or medieval "tactical" battles, since all weapons may be hand-to-hand weapons.

                              It can also fail when the game designer decides to "zoom in" or "zoom out" when determining the game's scale. Storm over Arnhem seems like a tactical game, but because of the area-movement system, IIRC there are no LOS rules needed. Battle of the Bulge (1981) is more "operational" in level, but it still has some LOS, as artillery units can fire into non-adjacent hexes.


                              The operational level games are however a bit harder to define, but I would say that they are the games that offers you command of the combat support elements. A game that enables you to plan out your logistics in some manner at least aspires to be on the operational arena. The goal of such a game is not to just beat the enemy forces at hand. Its instead about completing the overall strategic goal, to invade an island or to defend a province. Something that isnt done on one battlefield, but instead is its own campaign on its own.
                              I guess I can see your line of thinking, but it seems to me you're trying too hard to impose historical-military terms on wargames. In some of the classic operational-level Avalon Hill board wargames (e.g., Waterloo), there was little that could be called explicitly logistical; there were no support elements. Others (e.g., Afrika Korps) did have unit-counters representing support elements. That just means it's designer's choice: sometimes a designer will choose to "abstract out" or ignore supply and logistics; other times a designer will choose to make these things explicit and give players control over them. Either way, IMO a wargame that covers the whole Waterloo campaign is clearly an operational-level game.

                              As to "strategic goals," IMO all games have them. But they vary widely depending on the scale of the game. In Victory in the Pacific, a goal might be to capture the Philippines. In ASL, a goal might be to defend a crossroads. Either way, that becomes your "strategic goal" for the game, and then you have to devise and exercise the tactics that will lead to achieving that goal.

                              In chess, your ultimate strategic goal is always to checkmate the opponent's king. Chess strategy is all about how, generally, to approach that goal (e.g., whether to attack on the king side, queen side, or center); chess tactics are all about specific moves, countermoves, and combinations of moves.

                              Tactical level games
                              ASL (boardgame)
                              Steelpanthers (computer)

                              Strategic level games

                              Axis and Allies (boardgame)
                              Hearts of Iron (computer)

                              Operational level games

                              (Qualified guess) EastFront II (boardgame)
                              Conquest of the Aegean and of course TOAW (computer)
                              There are a couple games on that list that I'm not familiar with, but overall it sounds good to me.

                              But to me, the only real difference between these kinds of wargames is the size of the engagement being represented. Tactical wargames represent skirmishes or small battles; operational wargames represent huge battles or small to medium campaigns; strategic wargames represent huge campaigns or entire wars.

                              And the scale is all relative. The Battle of Marathon was huge for its day and played such a key role in the whole campaign and war that it seems to almost take on strategic dimensions. Yet if you superimpose the Battle of the Bulge onto it, Marathon looks like a little skirmish in comparison. Similarly, any war in earth's history might look miniscule in comparison to galactic warfare of the future.
                              --Patrick Carroll


                              "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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