Are You the Next Napoleon?

In war there is no substitute for experience, no substitute for the intuitive skill that comes from repeated practice. Tactical decision games are a practice field for the tactical leader. This article explains why and how.

Think of the Great Captains of military history—Alexander, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Genghis Khan. We hold these men in high regard because we recognize them as military geniuses, as true masters of the art of war whose mastery of the art form clearly eclipses the mass of the merely competent. Clearly, the art of war places high demands on the intellect of military commanders, and any professional continually strives toward mastery.

The “Mystery of Mastery”

But how are such masters made? Are they born geniuses or the product of training? Napoleon’s quote makes it clear that he believed intellectual preparation was an essential factor. While natural abilities are certainly a contributing factor, psychological studies show that Napoleon was right. The pioneering work to uncover the “mystery of mastery” was done by cognitive psychologists in the 1960s and 1970s, using chess players as the subject. According to Robert J. Trotter in “The Mystery of Mastery,” Psychology Today, July 1986:

It had been assumed that the ability to think many movers ahead and consider the implications of each move was what separated the expert from the novice chess player. But in the mid 1960s, psychologist Adriaan de Groot showed that neither experts nor novices think more than a few moves ahead.


… findings suggest that a chess master is someone who, after years of experience, can recognize as many as 100,000 meaningful board positions and make the best response to each. So instead of being a deep thinker who can see many moves ahead, the master chess player is now seen as someone with a superior ability to take in large chunks of information, recognize problem situations and respond appropriately. This explains how a chess master is able to defeat dozens of weaker players in simultaneous play. For the most part, the master relies on pattern-recognition abilities, or so-called “chess intuition,” to generate potentially good moves.

According to Robert Glaser and Michelene Chi of the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center in the same Psychology Today article:

The most important principle of skill performance is that skill depends on the knowledge base. In general, the more practice one has had in some domain, the better the performance, and from all indications, this increase in expertise is due to improvements in the knowledge base.

The same principle applies to tactics—which have obvious similarities to chess—and to tacticians. And that is where tactical decision games come in.

Tactical decision games (TDGs) are a simple, fun, and effective way to improve your decision-making ability and tactical acumen to improve your mastery of the art of war. Like most skills, you can improve tactical decision-making ability through practice. The idea behind TDGs is to put you in the role of a commander facing a tactical problem, give you a limited amount of time and information, and require you to develop a plan to solve the problem. By repeatedly working through problems like these you will learn not only to make better decisions, but you will also learn to make decisions better—that is, more quickly and efficiently. You will learn to look at a situation and instantly take in its essential features, to cut right to the heart of the problem.

Coup D’oeil

In short, you will develop the skill Frederick the Great called coup d’oeil (pronounced “koo dwee”). Coup d’oeil literally means “strike of the eye,” and Frederick described it as:

The talent which great men have of conceiving in a moment all the advantages of the terrain and the use they can make of it with their army … The clever general perceives the advantages of the terrain instantly; he gains advantage from the slightest hillock, from a tiny marsh; he advances or withdraws a wing to gain superiority; he strengthens either his right or his left, moves ahead or to the rear, and profits from the merest bagatelles … Whoever has the best coup d’oeil will perceive at first glance the weak spot of the enemy and attack him there … The judgment that is exercised about the capacity of the enemy at the commencement of a battle is also called coup d’oeil. This latter is the result only of experience.

Just as the chess master immediately sees patterns and opportunities on a chess board where others see a disarray of pieces, the tactician gifted with coup d’oeil sees patterns and opportunities on the battlefield where others see chaos and confusion. While no two battlefield situations will ever be identical, the master tactician can recognize patterns on the tactical “chess board.”

Improved Tactics

Not only will you improve your ability to make decisions quickly and effectively through TDGs, but your appreciation and mastery of tactics will improve also. An understanding of tactical theory is an important foundation for tactical mastery, but theory will only take you so far. Frankly, the basic concepts behind good tactics are not all that complex, nor are they particularly hard for the average Marine to comprehend. The difficult thing is in applying those concepts to specific tactical situations—that is where true genius and the development of coup d’oeil come in.

As coup d’oeil improves, you begin to make sense of situations that made no sense before, you begin to see patterns, and in those patterns you spot opportunities and options that previously did not exist for you. As you become more experienced, you become more comfortable with a variety of different situations. You have the opportunity to experiment with different tactical ideas without having to worry about paying the price in terms of casualties. Your tactics become more ambitious. Where before an enemy movement appeared threatening, now you see it as an opportunity to strike him in the flank. Your tactics become more advanced. Where before your tactics involved simply trying to attack your enemy, now you think of ways to get him to expose himself first. By “more advanced” I do not necessarily mean more complex. A plan does not have to be more complex to exhibit a greater understanding of tactical principles, greater flexibility, a greater appreciation for the use of terrain, a greater sense of timing, or a greater range of options. Often the simplest plans are the most inspired precisely because they are the most economical.

A valuable fringe benefit of TDGs is that you become more familiar with weapons capabilities and employment techniques, the use of control measures and map symbols, and other technical details.

Tactical Decision Games Group

I say all of this out of personal experience. I was part of a group of Marines and civilians that met at the Marine Corps University late every Thursday afternoon for a couple of years to play and develop TDGs. The makeup of the group ranged from corporals to brigadier generals, from clerks and drivers to the editor of the Marine Corps Gazette, a Marine Corps University librarian, and Command and Staff College instructors in operational art. Some members came and went, but a devoted cadre remained. Those of us who participated regularly unanimously agreed that our tactical skills had improved significantly as the result of the TDGs. Not only could we reach tactical decisions—that is, formulate plans—more quickly and efficiently, but we found we could communicate those plans more clearly and concisely to the group and in general the standard of our tactical plans was higher. Each of the members benefited from seeing how others handled the same tactical problems and from being critiqued by the others—and in the atmosphere of professional fraternity the group consciously refused to “sugar coat” the critiques. The TDGs generated serious discussions on tactical concepts and created a heightened interest in tactics in general. While we may not have developed any new Napoleons, all who participated felt much more confident of their abilities as a result of the experience.

How the Games Work

Playing a tactical decision game is very simple. Putting yourself in the role of the commander, you read (or have described to you) the situation; within an established time limit, you decide what plan to adopt and communicate that plan in the form of the orders you would issue to your unit if the situation were “for real.” You provide an overlay of your plan. Then—and this is an important part of the process—you explain the plan as a means of analyzing why you did what you did—What options did you have? What factors or considerations were foremost in your mind? On what tactical principles or concepts was your plan based? What assumptions did you make about the situation?

Drawing an overlay of your plan is an important part of the process. It is much easier to be vague in words, hiding the fact that you haven’t thought the problem all the way through, than in a diagram. Diagrams are precise. In order to be able to draw a diagram of your concept, you must have thought the concept through clearly; the overlay is a good way to ensure this. But by the same token, it is equally important to develop a verbal order as well (whether written or oral) because words are the primary means by which we communicate our plans, and we should practice using the same tools we will use in combat.

One advantage of TDGs is that just as in “real life,” there are no absolute right or wrong answers—no “schoolbook solutions.” Tactics are concerned only with what works. There are countless ways to solve any tactical problem. However, some plans reflect a truer understanding of tactical principles than others. The whole objective of TDGs is to arrive at a truer understanding of tactical principles than others. The whole objective of TDGs is to arrive at a truer understanding that eventually results in mastery.

Normally, the scenario is fairly simple and the information about it is far from complete, requiring us to make certain assumptions as the basis for decision—just as in combat. Unlike board games or their computer versions, TDGs have very few rules or mechanics to learn. In fact, there are really only two “rules:” (1) the imposed time limit and (2) the requirement to give the solution in the form of a combat order. Both are worth discussing briefly.

There are two reasons for the time limit. First, it introduces a certain amount of friction, in the form of stress, to the decision process. The idea is to give the player less time and information than he thinks he needs to formulate a good plan and yet require him to come up with one anyway. This is the reality of war and precisely one of the abilities that makes for a successful commander. Second, the game imposes a time limit because combat is time competitive. Speed relative to your opponent is essential. Not only must you make good decisions, but you must make them quickly. If not, your decision, no matter how sound, will be irrelevant because you will be too late.

The reasons for requiring the solution in the form of a combat order are also two-fold. First, communications skills improve with practice. The means that commanders use to communicate instructions to subordinates is through combat orders—either full operations orders or fragmentary orders. The ability to communicate clearly a plan involving the participation of hundreds or thousands of men and pieces of equipment in an atmosphere of fog and friction is no mean skill. A brilliant plan muddled in the issuing is a bad plan. Effective communication means not only clarity, but also forcefulness and, due to the need for speed, conciseness. It is no coincidence that so many of the great military leaders were also inspiring communicators. Second, tactics demand action, not an academic discussion of the merits of this or that scheme: Decision, not debate. “The essential thing is action,” wrote Hans von Seekt, once chief of staff of the German army. “Action has three stages: the decision born of thought, the order or preparation for execution, and the execution itself.” The third, and really meaningful, stage—execution—cannot happen without the first two stages. The TDGs printed here and in the Gazette ask players to submit explanations of their plans, but only after they have issued their orders. So the rule is: “Orders first, then discussion.”

Solitaire Play

There are a couple of ways to play the games. The first is solitaire play, working the scenarios just like you would solve a brain teaser or crossword puzzle. This is the form the TDGs take in these pages. The time commitment is usually no more than 15 minutes to a half hour. This method exercises the decision-making process but lacks certain advantages of the second method.

Group Play

The second method is to play the game in an interactive group, with one player (usually the senior or most experienced member) acting as moderator. The moderator describes the scenario to the players, answers questions (some, but not all) about the situation, enforces the time limit, selects different players to brief their plans to the group, and moderates the critique of each plan. The moderator plays devil’s advocate, introducing “What ifs” and asking “Why did you do that?” The advantages of group play are:

  • A built-in sense of pressure and competition. Players’ abilities are on display for others to see.
  • Immediate feedback. Each player gets a critique of his plan from the moderator and other players.
  • Practice giving orders. Each player must actually issue his order to the group.
  • See other solutions. Players can see how others approached the same problem, gaining insights that they can add to their own repertoire.
  • Teamwork. Especially within operating units, these group sessions can help develop intuitive understanding among members.
  • Generates discussion in tactics. As happened in the Quantico group, the TDGs become a catalyst for sharing tactical ideas. Of Scenario #9, “The Enemy Over the Bridge,” MCG, Jun 90, Cpl J. R. Murphy wrote, “I have shown your article to three other Marines, and have been involved in three heated conversations regarding the scenario and what course of action the frag order should initiate. This simple tool that you’ve published has the demonstrated ability to really turn on some minds.”

This method is ideally suited to officers’ or NCOs’ calls or professional development sessions within units. The group method works best using an overhead projector so players can project an overlay of their plan for their briefing.

Two-Sided or “Double-Blind” Play

A third, more involved, method is two-sided play. Two-sided play involves a controller and two opposing teams. The teams solve the same problem, but from opposing sides. The controller compares the two solutions and makes judgments about the result: Blue’s tanks platoon is ambushed by TOWs at the clearing; Red’s LAI company has reached the bridge with no enemy contact; a Blue rifle company has broken through Red lines in the woods with moderate casualties. The controller then separately presents each team with the updated situation—i.e., a new problem to solve. Each team “sees” only those enemy forces it has been able to locate by its own means. Now, instead of allowing the teams to develop deliberate plans, the controller requires commanders to issue fragmentary orders “on the spot;” “Alpha Company, attack north to seize the bridge in order to deny its use to the enemy.” The controller then compares the new fragmentary orders, generates another updated situation, and the game continues. After four or five turns the teams have fought out an engagement.

This version more resembles a conventional wargame than the others and takes up to a couple of hours to play. But rather than relying on movement ratings, casualty tables, and dice rolls like a board game, the two-sided TDG relies on the judgment of the controller for its results. The actual results are not as important as the fact that they create new tactical problems for the players to solve. This version works best if each team includes several players, a senior commander, and several subordinates to lead the different units.


Clausewitz wrote that “friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.” TDGs are, quite literally, war on paper and so are not subject to the countless difficulties that distinguish real war. In reality, units get lost, orders get misunderstood, subordinates make bad decisions, important intelligence reports get misplaced, communications break down, and nothing happens as fast as it should. A plan that seems simple in conception can be extremely difficult in execution. A plan brilliant in conception that is impossible to execute given the circumstances is not brilliant at all, but foolish. Commanders’ responsibilities do not stop when they issue their orders, of course; they must also supervise the execution of their plans. But TDGs stop short of execution. You should keep this in mind when playing TDGs so as not to get the impression this whole business is much easier than it really is. In the group version, the moderator should serve as a “reality check” by questioning the feasibility of the various plans: “Do you really expect to make a 12-mile forced march through the woods at night?”

Solve the Problem, Don’t Critique It

In order to keep the scenarios from getting too complicated and unwieldy, the situation descriptions are intentionally short and simple. This also adds an element of the uncertainty that is present in any tactical situation. In any situation, a commander could identify countless pieces of information he wishes he had, as well as countless inconsistencies in the information he does have. Since this is so, he must make certain assumptions. Dealing with uncertainty is one of the fundamental challenges of tactical decision making. It is easy and tempting to pick apart a simplified scenario and call it unrealistic, inconsistent, or impossible. But that is simply avoiding the challenge. The fact is war is full of unrealistic, inconsistent, and apparently impossible happenings. It is important to take the scenarios on their own terms.

One captain’s response to Scenario #1, “Ambush at Dusk,” MCG, Nov 91, was not to offer a solution but to question how the unit in question got into the situation it did—probably a reasonable criticism. But in fact, the scenario was based on an actual incident in Vietnam, and a more detailed account could have explained more fully why the unit was where it was. More important, whether or not the unit should ever have gotten into that predicament in the first place, it did and Marines had to find a way out.

The person whose first response to a problem scenario is to complain, “This would never happen,” is probably the same person who has trouble dealing with unexpected situations. As with any problem, the best advice is to solve it first and then figure out how it could have happened.

In Closing

Experience is the great teacher. Unfortunately, ours is a field in which experience can cost dearly. As Field Marshal Sir William Slim wrote of taking over British forces in Burma in 1942: “Experience taught a good deal, but with the Japanese as instructors it was an expensive way of learning.” We are professionally obligated to do whatever we can to gain whatever experience we can without paying full price. That is precisely why we study past campaigns, and precisely why we should play tactical decision games.

Now, it’s time for your first mission. Good luck!

>Editor’s Note: Exert from Marine Corps Gazette’s Mastering Tactics by Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR, Copyright 1994 by Marine Corps Association.