Many of you might remember Tom Knight as someone that has written for our blog a few times over the past year or so. I became acquainted with Tom when I saw his annual tradition with his gaming group where they prepare for and play Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation from GMT Games. The game for them has become more of a tradition that honors the process of the Reformation that the game depicts. Tom also has shared his love of Commands & Colors EPIC Ancients and has now decided to grace the blog with a great little write-up on one of his favorite subjects of military history that has affected his play of wargames.
In the mid-eighties I took a college class on American military history. Our text was aptly entitled American Military History, edited by Maurice Matloff. I still have the book. The introduction of the book dealt with U.S. strategy in warfare based on principles set out in the U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5 (for a more modern update see here). In a trip down memory lane several years ago, I realized that the list of nine principles could be a good primer for game players. I photocopied the list and often read it to players before we started a game. I thought it would be useful to review these principles in this blog post in reference to game examples that I can think of in my limited gaming experience. What I intend is for readers of this blog post to comment on their own experiences with games that fit within each strategy mentioned.
Objective: As the field manual states, “every military operation must be directed toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective. The ultimate military objective of war is the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces and his will to fight.” When playing your games do you know your objective well? When teaching games to new players, do you explain the objective clearly and concisely? Do you win by destroying units or taking strategic points on the map? What about games that allow one to pick from a list of secret objectives? What are some games that allow one to decide from a list of objectives?
As the field manual states, “every military operation must be directed toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective. The ultimate military objective of war is the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces and his will to fight.”
Offensive: You have heard it said that the best offense is a good defense, and the Field Manual agrees. The offensive allows a commander “to exercise initiative and impose his will upon the enemy.” How well do you take the offensive in your games? What games have you played which deliberately simulate historical offensive/defensive sides? When playing more “open” games where players execute their own battle plans, how well are you on executing the offensive? Recently, I have been learning the rules to Lee Takes Command. The campaign scenario turns on the Confederate player’s ability to shift from defense to offense. Will Lee stay in Richmond, or shift to trying to crush McClean in White Oak Swamp? What games have you played which highlight the offensive, or which allow you the freedom to create your own plan?
Mass: “Superior combat power must be concentrated at the critical time and place for a decisive purpose.” Perhaps the easiest to spot and learn, mass was a routine experience in those early years playing games like Risk and Axis & Allies. If you wanted to take Moscow you had to counter (either with a larger mass of tanks and bombers) the Russian hoard of infantry guarding the gates. Risk? Well, what took all night sometimes was the several piles of troops that never went anywhere and just got larger. But mass can also be very subtle. Putting together a strike force (and being able to combine it with surprise is best) with superior mass is usually the way to a victory. Mass is such a staple of war games I hesitate to even name any, but here are a few that I have recently experienced: being able to assemble large groups in Rebellion: 1775 by Academy Games; filling up one’s Daimyo Battle Card in Shogun (to my horror now called Ikusa); getting those heavies in Command and Colors Ancients off the back row and into a fight; and any logistics game where getting enough troops to the right spot via roads is the key to success. What are some of your favorite examples of mass?
Economy of Force: I remember this principle well since I answered it wrongly as the opposite of mass on one of my class tests. The Field Manual states that mass is “the corollary of the principle of mass.” I am sure that is what I meant. It allows the commander to “accomplish the mission with the minimum expenditure of resources.” I think about a small unit defending a strong defensive spot, or bringing just enough pressure to bear on an opponent’s flank to cause panic. We often find ourselves in situation where we don’t have enough resources to do everything we want, and this principle can help us achieve our objective as a supporting task.
Maneuver: The Field Manual states that maneuver “contributes materially in exploiting successes and in preserving freedom of action and reducing vulnerability.” Are your troops flexible, battle ready and rested? Can you get them to where they need to be? How will you use maneuver to achieve your objective? How does the terrain or enemy block your maneuver? Maneuver allows one to put the enemy at a disadvantage. Sometimes we do find ourselves at the right place at the right time, but good generals know how to get to the right place at the right time. I think here of all those games where roads play a large part in the game. What games allow you to flex maneuver?
The Field Manual states that maneuver “contributes materially in exploiting successes and in preserving freedom of action and reducing vulnerability.”
Unity of Command: This principle can be tricky to simulate in a wargame since most games allow us to control almost all aspects of the game. It is hard to create fog of war or squabbles among generals in my mind. However, a few games have tried to overcome this luxury by adding in random chit pulls to move forces (At All Costs), cards that limit my ability to move every single unit I control, or limited operation points. My favorite, however, is the Epic scenarios for Command and Colors which divides each side’s forces into field generals who do the fighting and an overall command who issues the orders. It truly is a unity of command issue when you are trying to get three other people to execute your plans on the field. For more information about this fine game, please see my article on playing Command and Colors Epic. What are some games you have played that deal with this principle?
Security: How do you prevent surprise? How do you keep your lines of communication from being broken? How do you stop the loss of secret plans? These are all issues of security. Again, this is an issue that is hard to simulate in many war games. Several games that I have recently played which incorporate this principle are Fire in the Lake (police units deployed on the roads to stop operations by the Viet Cong), and the use of cavalry to both screen and expose hidden movement in the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series by Clash of Arms (now out of print). How does security play into your plans?
Surprise: Many wargames don’t offer much surprise other than the roll of dice. One of the problems with Axis & Allies was always knowing where everything was, and who would go next. Finding a game that really incorporates surprise is a real treat. For me, one of the first games that had the element of surprise was Shogun in the Milton Bradley Game Masters series. The use of the Ninja and Ronin added so much to the game, as well as the ability to purchase one’s turn order. One might know that an opponent had purchased the Ronin mercenaries, but he was not sure exactly (most of the time) where they were placed. Even the most experienced Daimyo could fall to the Ninja. Where would the Ninja strike, and just as important when? These mechanics added a lot to the game. Other examples would include hidden movement in block games such as Julius Caesar by Columbia Games, or the “first strike” card in Command and Colors Ancients. What are some of your favorite examples of surprise?
Simplicity: Sometimes remembered as KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), simplicity should be easy, but can be very difficult to implement. As bad examples of war plans that were just too complicated to work, one could think of the Japanese plans at Midway or the three-pronged plan set forth by General Burgoyne at Saratoga that failed to converge. What about your games? Do you find yourself with overblown complex plans that are hard to execute? Have you found a simple plan that works well for a given game? Please let us know.
As bad examples of war plans that were just too complicated to work, one could think of the Japanese plans at Midway or the three-pronged plan set forth by General Burgoyne at Saratoga that failed to converge.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the application of the above principles, and good generals know when to use them. At some point in the game, one needs to “know when to hold them, know when to fold them.” These nine principles are not a guarantee to success, but I think that reviewing them before a game with your opponent or gaming group will create great conversation and thought for your next big battle. And hopefully you will also help build up a new gamer who wants to learn.