Operational Design in Wargaming Chapter 5 -Principles of War

"A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine."

My apologies to anyone who has ever had to serve on a battalion or above staff for the following…..

I am still working on an update to my series about war gaming in the modern (post -WWII) era.  In writing it, however, I think it is useful to understand the concept of the Principles of War and how they can be modeled on the table top and within a set of rules.  This is both to guide the designer and help the player understand the role of the commander their are seeking to represent.  There is no single agreed upon set of principles, however most of the lists include common factors, being American I suppose I will begin with them.
•          ObjectiveDirect every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive and attainable objective. The ultimate military purpose of war is the destruction of the enemy's ability to fight and will to fight.  
The British equivalent to this is Maintenance of Aim. The idea is to ensure that you clearly establish your objectives.  This can be done in the establishment of scenario objectives by the designer or in developing a plan by the player.  I’ve always the like the “Maintenance of Aim”  concept as I think it helps to prevent the game from become a pell-mell skirmish with entire regiments.  

•          OffensiveSeize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Offensive action is the most effective and decisive way to attain a clearly defined common objective. Offensive operations are the means by which a military force seizes and holds the initiative while maintaining freedom of action and achieving decisive results. This is fundamentally true across all levels of war.
Games of static defense are rarely fun as they are essentially dice rolling exercises for the defender.  US Doctrine has tended towards the defense as being something you do in order to set conditions to resume the offense.  I think most gamers can identify with the need to attack to seize the objective.

•          Mass Mass the effects of overwhelming combat power at the decisive place and time. Synchronize all elements of combat power where they will have decisive effect on an enemy force in a short period of time. Massing effects, rather than concentrating forces, can enable numerically inferior forces to achieve decisive results, while limiting exposure to enemy fire.
Mass kicks @$$.  This goes both for scenario/game design in ensuring that the game allows for the player to mass effects, and also for the player to understand how Mass allows them to focus on accomplishing their objective.  The idea is not just to attack across a broad front, but to mass effects at a given location to support your plan.
•          Economy of Force Employ all combat power available in the most effective way possible; allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts. Economy of force is the judicious employment and distribution of forces. No part of the force should ever be left without purpose. The allocation of available combat power to such tasks as limited attacks, defense, delays, deception, or even retrograde operations is measured in order to achieve mass elsewhere at the decisive point and time on the battlefield.
The key concept here is the idea that every unit on your table needs to have a purpose that is nested with accomplishing your plan.  

•          ManeuverPlace the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power. Maneuver is the movement of forces in relation to the enemy to gain positional advantage. Effective maneuver keeps the enemy off balance and protects the force. It is used to exploit successes, to preserve freedom of action, and to reduce vulnerability. It continually poses new problems for the enemy by rendering his actions ineffective, eventually leading to defeat.
This is where table size really influences your game.  Is there sufficient room to maneuver?  Does the perfect knowledge of the disposition of forces on the tabletop prevent the player from effectively using maneuver?  Does your scenario/rules reward the maintenance of a reserve to exploit success?

•          Unity of Command – For every objective, seek unity of command and unity of effort. At all levels of war, employment of military forces in a manner that masses combat power toward a common objective requires unity of command and unity of effort. Unity of command means that all the forces are under one responsible commander. It requires a single commander with the requisite authority to direct all forces in pursuit of a unified purpose.
Less of a problem on the tabletop between two opponents, but unity of effort can evaporate when you have multiple players on a side.  I have seen many large games devolve into multiple small games on the same table as the various players face off across the table with the person directly opposite and ignore the other other players on their side.  Ensuring a system exists to force each side to establish and follow a plan is key if your focus is on simulation rather than simple game play.

•          Security Never permit the enemy to acquire unexpected advantage. Security enhances freedom of action by reducing vulnerability to hostile acts, influence, or surprise. Security results from the measures taken by a commander to protect his forces. Knowledge and understanding of enemy strategy, tactics, doctrine, and staff planning improve the detailed planning of adequate security measures.
This is another difficult item to model on your tabletop.  It does, however, factor into your pre-game planning as you look at the scenario.  Ensure you think about your opponents plan, rather than just how you expect him to react to your plan.  He doesn’t have to react to your plan, if his plan works better.

•          SurpriseStrike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared. Surprise can decisively shift the balance of combat power. By seeking surprise, forces can achieve success well out of proportion to the effort expended. Surprise can be in tempo, size of force, direction or location of main effort, and timing. Deception can aid the probability of achieving surprise.
Surprise generally only works as part of scenario design or some form of hidden movement.  The problem on the tabletop is that we can see forces massing and maneuvering which makes surprise difficult or contrived.  I think surprise works best in games with referees/game masters as it doesn’t compromise players’ sense of fair play.  

•          Simplicity Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders to ensure thorough understanding. Everything in war is very simple, but the simple thing is difficult. To the uninitiated, military operations are not difficult. Simplicity contributes to successful operations. Simple plans and clear, concise orders minimize misunderstanding and confusion. Other factors being equal, parsimony is to be preferred.
I kept the entire quote as parsimony is not a word used on common parlance.  After seeing everything else, I still think simplicity is a key to success.  Current game mentality is to keep game duration to the 2-4 hour mark.  Simplicity is deciding what are the important aspects you want to model with your rules, and where are you prepared to accept compromise.  Simplicity can be having your orders just lines drawn on a map with a die roll required to deviate from the plan.  

So there they are.  Some simple principles to consider the next time you are planning to dominate your opponent on the tabletop, or some key ideas to frame your thoughts in drafting an engaging scenario,  


  1. Many of these themes, I feel, can only bloom properly in a well-run campaign. A well-crafted scenario, however, can make use of these points to spice up 'yet another encounter battle' that can be just too common, and Unity of Command can provide enough friction in any set of rules.

    And, a question - I believe that I have found a photo of you with my step-son from Game Faire, circa 1999 or 2000. Would you mind if I posted it to my blog sometime in the near future?

    1. I think they apply best when designing scenarios. Campaigns are fraught with their own perils and are a topic for a future chapter. As for the picture it begs the question, who is your step-son and what game were we playing? Was it one of mine?

    2. You were running a 1814 scenario for Napoleon's Battles I believe, and Josh wanted to play. The pic of you and Josh is the best, but there are others.

    3. It was probably Lundy's Lane or Queenston Heights with my old War of 1812 collection. The rules were Jon's old "Anatomy of Glory" set

  2. This is a great quote, " He doesn’t have to react to your plan, if his plan works better." So true and often overlooked, dismissed or discounted entirely. Which rules come close to incorporating these eight principles? That, in itself, could prompt a lively discussion.

    1. A similar admonishment one of my military bosses liked to use was "Don't forget that the enemy also gets a vote."

  3. Good stuff once again. This is why the Campaign in a Day events are such a great change of pace - all of the above come very clearly into focus.

    1. I am interested in trying out your campaign in a day system. I find that most campaigns do not survive long as player interest fades. (Especially as one player begins to dominate)


Post a Comment