Observations on Four Years of TDGs

by Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR

The Marine Corps Gazette published readers’ solutions to the first-ever tactical decision game, TDG #90-1, “The Enemy Over the Bridge,” 4 years ago this month. The Gazette has posed a different tactical problem in each issue since “The Enemy Over the Bridge”-a total of 50 TDGs in all. So it seems like an appropriate time to take a look at the effect, if any, that TDGs have had on the Corps’ tactical development. Have the last 4 years’ worth of TDGs revealed any changes in our approach to tactics and tactical decisionmaking? In the course of preparing a book of TDGs for the Marine Corps Association, I had occasion to go through all the past games and the solutions that readers had submitted, and (admitting that I am a proponent of TDGs) I observed several distinct trends:

* The usual list of suspects. The same readers’ names seem to keep cropping up on solutions. Some readers may play only once or occasionally, but there is a core of readers, Marines and civilians, who submit solutions regularly. Their solutions tend to demonstrate consistent insight and are often the ones that end up being published. While doing a TDG once in a while may help illustrate an isolated tactical lesson here or there, it is only through repeated playing that we build the vicarious experience base that is essential to developing the skill for pattern-recognition (or coup d’oeil) that is the basis for mastery. In other words, it is through the repeated use of TDGs that the real benefits arise. The rest of my observations are based largely, but not entirely, on the solutions submitted by the hardcore TDGers.

* Trend toward uniformity. The submitted solutions have tended to become more uniform over time. This point was driven home to me when the editor of the Gazette remarked that he was disappointed in TDGs #93-12 and #94-1 because “everybody picked the same solutions.” From the point of view of a magazine editor interested in publishing a variety of solutions this may be bad, but from the point of view of tactics this is definitely a good thing. Compare TDG #90-1, “The Enemy Over the Bridge” with TDG #93-12, “Action at Oxford.” In the former, a battalion commander has instructions to move his battalion into an assembly area in preparation for an attack the following morning across a supposedly friendly held river. Approaching the river, the battalion commander discovers simultaneously that there is enemy infantry occupying his assembly area, that the river and bridge are undefended, and that enemy forces are pouring across the bridge. Solutions to “The Enemy Over the Bridge” were literally all over the map: Some chose to hunker down right where they were and defend; some chose to attack to seize the assigned assembly area; some refused to act on their own initiative and radioed for instructions; and some chose to fix or bypass the enemy in the assembly area and to attack to get the bridge back and shut off the enemy penetration. In “Action at Oxford,” a company executive officer faces a similar dilemma. He has instructions to move the company to the front to effect a relief in place. The commander has already gone forward to coordinate. In the process of moving the company as ordered, the executive officer learns of a sizable enemy force that has somehow outflanked the regiment and is threatening to cut off the regiment’s line of operations at Oxford. Solutions to “Action at Oxford” were much more uniform. In fact, as the editor of the Gazette remarked, they were basically the same-deal immediately with the unexpected threat from the flank; tell the commander what you’re doing, certainly, but don’t wait for instructions. How they dealt with the threat varied, but they all opted to deal with it. This is a good thing. We talk of the need for a shared way of thinking, a common philosophy, as the basis for the implicit understanding that is so important to maneuver warfare. Here is a concrete example. Such a shared way of thinking makes it much easier to cooperate and coordinate our efforts.

However, this raises the question: Does this uniformity of thought make us more predictable to the enemy? Not really; only if the enemy has gone through the same acculturation process that we have so that he arrives at the same way of thinking. Sun Tzu said: “Know your enemy, know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” Any commander who knows his enemy that well, who can think like his enemy thinks, will win a lot of battles regardless.

* Trend toward improved judgment. Not only have solutions become more uniform over time, but they have also reflected better judgment. Readers are more often making the “right” moves. (We know that there are no absolute “right” or “wrong” answers, but some decisions are clearly better than others.) In “The Enemy Over the Bridge,” going immediately for the bridge was the right thing to do, but only about half of the readers did it. In “Action at Oxford,” dealing immediately with the enemy enveloping attack was the right thing to do, and everybody who submitted a solution did it. (Regarding the question of predictability, if doing the right thing makes you more predictable, would it be better to do the wrong thing? Maybe sometimes, but not usually.)

* Increased willingness to accept uncertainty. Early on, the TDGs often elicited critical responses like “In a real situation, I would have known this piece of information” or “I should have known that piece of information.” In many cases, these responses were legitimate, but sometimes they were simply a reflection of the natural human desire to know everything there is to know before we make a decision. Our doctrine tells us that uncertainty is an inherent feature of war and that we must be able to make decisions without all the facts. Whether the criticisms are legitimate or not, more readers now seem willing to accept the “fog of war” and make their decisions based on what they do know. This is also a good thing, but it does not mean that we should passively accept situations as they are. We must still go out and actively seek the information that is in fact critical to our making an informed decision, but we must not expect to achieve anything close to absolute certainty. We need to know what information is truly important and what is not.

* Trend toward substance over form. One reader got into the spirit of “The Enemy Over the Bridge” by writing his solution on a C-ration carton, but most of the solutions were complete, typed five-paragraph orders with elaborate overlays. All well and good, but the time limit was 5 minutes, and it would take much longer than that simply to type up the order, much less think up the solution first. Now solutions tend to be much shorter and to-the-point. TDGers seem to have accepted the need for getting their orders out quickly. Instructions may follow the general flow of an operation order, but they are not overly concerned with format. Readers worry more about getting the message across as concisely, quickly, and clearly as possible. The same applies to control measures. Let me make it clear that I do not think control measures unimportant; they have a place. But early solutions often seemed to treat the TDGs primarily as exercises in the knowledge of control measures rather than exercises in tactical judgment. Regular TDGers seem to have intuitively arrived at a more balanced approach to the use of control measures; they use them for coordination or safety, where necessary, but don’t clutter up the plan or restrict initiative with them.

* Trend toward creativity/innovation. This observation is really related to the previous one. Early solutions seemed concerned with adopting standard forms of maneuver, formations, and so on. Linear dispositions prevailed. Three-to-one superiority was required in the attack. “Two up, one back, tanks in the treeline” was alive and well. As readers have expanded their experience base (and gained confidence as a result), solutions have tended to become increasingly nonstandard, unconventional, and creative. Decisions were based more on the peculiarities of the actual situation and less on doctrinal norms.

* Commander’s intent still a problem. As solutions and letters to the editor have demonstrated, there has not been a uniform improvement in the quality of commander’s intent statements either in the scenarios or the solutions. Some readers do better than others. A commander’s intent, which provides direction without being restrictive, is essential to harmonious initiative (as FMFM 1 calls it), but by its nature is a very difficult thing to put across. The lesson is that issuing a good commander’s intent is something that requires a lot of practice.

* No lack of critical thought. Based on the steady flow of letters that take issue with various tactical/doctrinal aspects of the scenarios, TDGs demonstrate the ability to get us thinking critically about tactical issues. Even where there is disagreement, this is a good thing. Such professional debate increases the awareness of all involved. We need more of it.

Clearly, the solutions submitted to TDGs over the last 4 years have shown a steady improvement-especially the solutions submitted by regular TDGers. Just as clearly, especially in the area of commander’s intent, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Whether 4 years of TDGs have contributed to this tactical improvement or are merely a reflection of the improvements of the maneuver-warfare movement in general may be a matter of discussion. Being a strong proponent of TDGs, I have no doubt that they have made an important contribution.

The Marine Corps has pretty much come to grips with the basic concepts of maneuver warfare. We now wrestle (not always successfully) with trying to find practical methods for translating maneuver-warfare concepts into action. It seems to me that TDGs, given their ability to develop the qualities discussed above, are a partial solution to this problem. Maneuver warfare is inherently a qualitative vice a quantitative approach to war, meaning that it relies primarily on judgment rather than on particular methods or techniques. Developing judgment is the whole point of TDGs. The evidence is clear: We should make more widespread and regular use of TDGs.