Maneuver Warfare in Commercial Board Wargames

by Capt Eric M. Walters

If you responded to my article, “Studying Military History With Wargames” (MCG, Dec89) and are thinking about augmenting your professional reading with wargaming, you can expect to be dazzled at least initially by most of the games produced today. You may find your library of books and games quadrupling in size every couple of months as your reading causes you to search out more games and your wargaming experiences prod you to read more books. But sooner or later the novelty will wear off, and the limitations of most board wargames will come home to roost. By this time you’ll have a basic mastery of tactical fundamentals; you’ll be winning in your games fairly often, and when you do lose it will have been by a squeak. If maneuver warfare terminology and ideas previously seemed to be vague and inconsistent to you, you will begin to understand them better and be looking for ways to test your comprehension of these principles on the gameboard. And you will find that this will be somewhat difficult, given the limitations of most board wargames.

Once this happens to you, you will have graduated from “grammar school” wargaming and be ready for something more challenging. The purpose of this article is to introduce you to advanced techniques in search of better ways to simulate the conditions of war and apply maneuver warfare on the gameboard.

Better Simulating the Conditions of Warfare

Most wargames are designed to please people with an intimate “book knowledge” of the weapons and terrain involved in a particular battle. These specific aspects of combat are relatively easy to quantify and understand; the game is focused on the “weapons effects” of units against each other, especially in regard to combined arms applications. This is what usually fascinates newcomers to wargaming. Perfect intelligence, perfect command and control, and the ability to move all of a player’s forces before his opponents can react represent sacrifices of reality made for greater attention to weapons effects and are often at first overlooked or forgiven by the wargaming novice.

The clash of forces working under

different philosophies of doctrine, organization, training, leadership, and command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) is much more difficult for both the designer to model and for the player to comprehend. Such considerations don’t lend themselves to a numerical analysis so easily. Games that do address them in detail tend to be complex and scare off potential players.

In most wargames, the only way to get inside the opponent’s OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) loop is to think faster and further ahead. While this is certainly realistic to an extent, even brilliant generals have to contend with the limitations of their forces and the fog of war. Securing victory is limited to attacking immediate or potential weaknesses in the opponent’s spatial disposition of forces, not through achieving a higher tempo of operations aimed at paralyzing his control over the situation. Combat ineffectiveness of a force is only reached when there are too few pieces on the mapboard to adequately defend vital territory-the rest have been eliminated from the game solely through combat losses or isolation from supply sources. There is no way to render an opponent ineffective by any means other than the direct and systematic destruction of his pieces in these games.

This undercuts the basis of maneuver warfare philosophy as applied on the gameboard: deceive the opponent, attack his most critical weaknesses at the most critical times, use friction and the fog of war to advantage in order to overwhelm the opponent’s decisionmaking capacity. Make him not only lose whatever initiative he might have, but ultimately rob him of the chance to effectively react to friendly actions. Nimbleness and finesse, in time as well as in space, should be able to bring down an opponent with numerically superior forces on the mapboard.

Most games can’t accurately show how this is to be done. In an effort to take into account better doctrine, C3I, organization, initiative, etc., these games crudely equate such advantages in “weapons effects” terms, usually giving the better force higher combat values and movement ability than what were strictly historical. Such games, by their very nature, downplay the roles of reconnaissance units, reserves, and deception, and so distort the simulation of combat. In short, playing such games seems to feel less like war and more like just a game, and the player tends to feel that he is acting less like a commander and more like a gameplayer.

Elsewhere in this article is a listing of the handful of games that, by virtue of their system design, most successfully address the conditions of warfare and allow you, the player, the best opportunity to practice maneuver warfare. Nearly all of them have fairly long and sometimes complicated rules, and so are not recommended for beginners. Yet any wargame can more realistically reflect the conditions of warfare-without such involved systems-by the addition of an umpire or referee. When an umpire is available, each player uses his own copy of the game and can only see the position of his forces and those of the enemy he would realistically have under observation. The umpire has a third copy of the game with the positions of both forces. He determines which units are observed for each player and handles all bookkeeping functions, such as combat resolution.

If you don’t find a third player expert in a particular game or willing enough to be an umpire, try one of the games recommended in the listing. Either way, you’ll be getting a better simulation of the conditions of warfare. How this is done is explained below.

* The Fog of War. Wargames that simulate this aspect of warfare deny players perfect knowledge of enemy dispositions, sometimes even of the enemy order or battle and mission. Pieces are inverted and mixed with dummy units to confuse the opponent and can only be revealed when observed or detected by his units using rules for that purpose. In umpired games the referee determines which units can be seen and cannot be seen by using his own expert judgment. Veteran umpires usually have their own homemade rules and charts to aid in reflecting the relative difficulty of seeing motionless units in cover or seeing out of a buttoned-up tank, and so on. Reconnaissance units, practically worthless in most games, take on crucial significance.

* Friction. One of the best games to simulate this aspect of warfare, Advanced Squad Leader, has provisions for crew-served weapon malfunctions, throwing tank tracks, ammunition depletion, unit surrender in desperate circumstances, intermittent communications, units losing their way at night, etc. Strategic games may include political constraints on operations, limiting the grandiose plans of the player in a realistic way. Murphy’s Law seems to run amok, and players often anguish over how to do the simplest of operations. In refereed games the umpire can inflict varying degrees of friction on opposing forces using his own system, kept secret from the players. For example, if he tells one side that his supply status is critical, during combat resolution the unit of that side may not consistently fight at full strength-depending on how long it has been in contact.

* Fluidity. In most wargames, a player can move all his units before his opponent can react with a single piece. Games like Fire Team confront a player with an action-reaction sequence of movement in which he can only move a fraction of his force before the opponent reacts. With an umpire, both sides may write movement and combat orders for their units which the referee resolves on the gameboard simultaneously. Both sides are constantly faced with fleeting opportunities and sudden retribution for mistakes. Keeping a large reserve in order to exploit unforeseen opportunities or to deal with unexpected crises is very important in these games. Each move made is fraught with promise and peril, and the moves mesh together into a flowing continuum of combat.

* Morale. Cardboard pieces no longer blindly attack or defend to the last gasp. Some units are more steadfast than others, but no unit is ever completely reliable under fire. Today’s heroes may be tomorrow’s cowards (and vice versa). Units become more fragile as they take losses, and leader pieces are needed to rally demoralized men when they break under the shock and fatigue of combat. National will may falter, lessening a commitment to a war and restricting the actions of units in the field. These considerations can arbitrarily but realistically be incorporated into an umpired game, while some board wargames like Squad Leader and Vietnam simulate this aspect of combat well in their own right.

* Leadership. For games with leader units, such as Fire Team or 1809, the player must wrestle with decisions on

where to place his good and mediocre leaders. In umpired games with multiple players, the supreme commander of each side must determine which player is best suited to each mission and force he must command. Forces and tasks must be matched to the capabilities of their commanders; giving a leader/player more than he can handle is a real possibility to be guarded against.

* C3I Effectiveness. No longer do all subordinate units automatically do what the player wants when he wants. Different formations complete tasks at different rates, depending on a quantified effectiveness rating of their staffs and communications. A player can offset the disadvantages of numerical inferiority if the C3I and organizational structure of his force allows him to perform more actions than his opponent. Games, such as 1809 and Tank Leader, graphically demonstrate the effectiveness of superior C3I through simple but realistic rules. This consideration is harder to simulate in an umpired game if the wargame played has no C3I rules unless it’s multiplayer-one way often used is to require the side with the poorer C3I system to not only write this turn’s orders for his units, but next turn’s as well. In a multiplayer game, the umpire can enforce communications restrictions on the participants of each side that reflect historical communications constraints.

Practicing Maneuver Warfare Principles

With the conditions of warfare accurately simulated by these methods, at last you have the opportunity to successfully apply maneuver warfare on the gameboard. If you thought that executing basic tactical principles when you first began to play wargames was daunting, the uncertainties with which you now must deal often paralyze many players into indecisiveness and inaction. You will always be looking at the board and cringing at your own pitiful situation-how easily your opponent could make mincemeat out of you! But he is no doubt thinking the same thing, and do either of you really know each other’s weaknesses? And even if one or the other (or both) of you do, are forces poised to take advantage of them? Wargaming at this advanced level sees players less occupied with making the perfect move in clockwork precision and more worried about finding the enemy, discovering or creating a weakness, making sure there is appropriate force to exploit that weakness, and mentally trying to see a way through all the obstacles to success. The latter ensures that each contest is ultimately a psychological one, as players not only battle each other over the tabletop, but also battle within themselves to overcome their own fears and doubts. If nothing else, the experience is quite character forming.

How do maneuver warfare principles translate onto the gameboard at this level of wargaming? Probably better than in any other medium short of actual combat, as the following discussion demonstrates.

* Shaping the battle. You must get yourselves oriented to the situation so you won’t flail around getting oriented when the unexpected happens. Look at the gameboard (terrain). Look at the victory conditions (your mission). Look at your forces (troops available). Look at how many turns the game or scenario is going to last (time available). And most important, try to estimate what type of force your opponent has and how he will use it (the enemy). The umpire may give you some intelligence concerning the latter, but if you aren’t playing with one, the scenario instructions might provide a good enemy order of battle. Yet even if you have a detailed order of battle for your opponent’s forces, you probably won’t be sure of his dispositions once the game starts. You must identify your own strengths and weaknesses and try to at least narrow down the probable ones of your opponent. Some quick time/distance calculations on the board may give you some indications as to where battles are likely to take place. Key terrain must be identified and a basic plan developed. While no plan survives contact with the enemy, you must have some general idea of how you want the battle to go and build into your play enough flexibility to take advantage of unexpected oppor-unities while minimizing unexpected misfortune. If this isn’t done you’ll probably lose the game to a competent opponent even before you start, for you will be reacting to his moves-he will be shaping the battle to his desires. You can’t afford to let him have the initiative before the first move is made.

If you are playing in a multiplayer game as the supreme commander, issue a clear estimate of the situation (this articulates your fundamental assumptions), a clear commander’s intent (what you want to have happen to the enemy), and simple mission-type orders (what each subordinate must accomplish in order to achieve the commander’s intent-not how to accomplish it). It will take some practice to do this correctly; you will find the first few times that your subordinate may understand what you want before the game starts, only to be lost in incomprehension once contact is made. Be a subordinate commander a few times and you’ll see what I mean.

* Finding the soft spots. Well, you do have reconnaissance units of some kind. You’ll need a plan for using them, not only to find the enemy, but also to find out where he is weak. This effort will involve your whole force, to include your brain. Units on the board will find the spatial gaps in your opponent’s dispositions, but it will be you who notices that he is sluggish in his movements in this sector here but not that sector there or that he mounts a better attack than he builds a defense, and so on.

* Decisionmaking. You are going to have a lot of information to go on, so much of your appreciation of the situation is going to be based on your intuition. The more you know your opponent and his methods, the more accurate your intuition will be. Does he like to attack no matter how foolish it may look? Is he the rash type, or is he more cautious and methodical? His every quirk is both a strength and a weakness-avoid circumstances that play to his strengths, and create ones that magnify his weaknesses.

Don’t let your lack of information paralyze you into indecisiveness and inaction, leaving your pieces nearly motionless on the gameboard, because you want to have a better picture of the unfolding tactical situation. Lots of players do this. Let this natural tendency of your opponent be something you can use against him; for yourself, be firm in applying your decisions, but be flexible enough not to pursue what turns out to be a bad course of action.

* Focus of effort. If you are playing a multiplayer game, it is important that all the players on a side recognize what the focus of effort means and their target. Otherwise each participant goes sallying off to fight his own little

war, and the operations of a side are without a sense of purpose and unity. If you alone are playing a side, you must fix your goal firmly in mind, think about and designate a focus of effort for all your operations, and stick to it as long as it remains relevant to the situation at hand. A mistake many players make is to continue on with a given focus of effort despite failure, even when something else looks to be much more promising. Mostly this happens out of a fear of the unknown and the unwillingness to change plans in the face of a changing situation.

* Speed, surprise, deception. If you aren’t making any headway, don’t lapse into inaction or push on with failure. Keep looking for a vulnerability or try to create one. No matter how strong your opponent may appear, he is weak or can be made weak somewhere. Find it. Configure your units you know to be seen by your opponent in such a way that they can threaten him one way or another. Perhaps he can only react to one move or the other, not both. Perhaps he will hesitate in order to “develop the situation.” Let your opponent fall into a “wait and see” posture: feed him a deception, then hit him at the decisive point when he is committed to a course of action based on an erroneous assumption. Force him to dance to your tune, react to your operations, and keep him from initiating his own. Inflict on him many small setbacks, building the foundation for the big setback that will give you the game, or at least cause him to throw in the towel. You should try to create in his mind the impression that he is losing the game, whether he actually is or not.

Do remember, though, that wargames are just that-games-and that they aren’t worth losing friends or opponents over. If you are too blood-thirsty you will soon run out of opponents willing to play you, and thus many learning opportunities will be lost. Temper your desire to win with common courtesy and the greater desire to learn from the experience.

As you can see, the broad principles of maneuver warfare work well in games that accurately simulate the conditions of war. Some readers might want concrete examples of how this translation of theory to the gameboard is done, but it varies from game to game and from opponent to opponent. There are no magic checklists or formulas to be discovered, just as in actual combat.

Quite a few Marines toss around maneuver warfare terminology with a vague idea of what it means but usually aren’t able to articulate how these ideas might be applied practically in combat. Those somewhat versed in military history will cite the well-known historical examples as illustrations of maneuver warfare principles in action, but any detailed explanation of how these concepts could be executed against any specific foe is rarely given. Part of the problem, admittedly, is that we Marines aren’t as knowledgeable about our potential enemies as we should be, but there is also a practical unfamiliarity with maneuver warfare concepts as well. This isn’t surprising-how often are we given “hands-on” opportunities to really practice these principles in peacetime? Unless you play wargames, these opportunities are few, if they even exist at all.

Once you have achieved a basic mastery of wargaming, and if you fancy yourself to be a serious student of military history or an advanced tactician, you will have your tactical problem-solving ability severely challenged by the kinds of games this article describes. These games are so successful at simulating not only the dynamic nature of combat, but also its uncertainties, that you can only hope for success if you apply tactical solutions that would work in real life. Your first few playings may overwhelm you with the unknowns and possibilities, but with practice you will be able to confidently deal with them. You will realize that while superior tactics vis-a-vis your opponent do not always earn you victory, inferior ones certainly guarantee you defeat. Soon you will notice an increasing ability to instinctively sense the true situation, to grasp its essentials quickly, and to correctly perceive the possibilities for action with their attendant risks and benefits-both in yourself and in the Marines you train using these games. Over time you and they will be able to make tactical decisions better and faster, both on and off the gameboard. There is simply no other medium as powerful and yet as inexpensive that can so realistically test your military judgment and practical understanding of maneuver warfare.