July 7, 2014 by crew
Recently, we kicked off a series of articles called “The Four Levels of Wargaming” aimed at opening a discussion into some new areas of our hobby. The first installment laid out rough definitions for these levels, along with brief descriptions and a few examples of each. Response has been great, and so I now present the second article, in which we’ll take a more detailed view of wargaming on the “scaled” or “command” tactical level.
Command tactical wargames are the next step up from the “pure” tactical games typically featured on Beasts of War. Of course I don’t mean to imply that these successive levels are any more advanced or challenging than intricate games like Flame of War, Bolt Action, Infinity, or Wolsung. In fact, as “command” games add new levels of complexity to account for higher-echelon operations, you’re bound to lose a little of the pinpoint granularity that pure tactical games feature so well. One thing you don’t necessarily have to part with, however, is your miniatures. Many command-level games can still use miniatures, even in settings up to the modern day. Great examples of this are GHQ’s MicroArmour series and Command Decision, which typically use 1/285 scale vehicles to represent platoons, batteries, or sections.
Put most simply, command tactical games present individual engagements just like pure tactical games, but on larger scales of time, space, and units employed. Individual playing pieces might represent platoons, companies, cohorts, battalions, or even regiments, depending on the era and setting of your game. This allows players to explore much larger and more complex engagements that would otherwise be a little unworkable.
That being said, however, making the jump to command-level gaming implies a lot more than simply pointing at the map and declaring that each of those Land Raiders now represents five Land Raiders. The map or table just zoomed to five times as long and five times as wide, giving you 25 times more playing area. All your ranges just dropped to 20%, making deployment and movement much more important by comparison. In some eras (World War 2 for example), transport becomes vital because your units don’t start “at the point of contact” like they do in Flames of War or Bolt Action. That means bridging units, lorries, horse-drawn wagons, not to mention battalion and regimental headquarters units. All of this has to be protected with rear echelon anti-aircraft, fortifications and minefields. Because the playing area is much larger, the games allow much more realistic deployment “in depth,” and doesn’t squeeze certain units onto “front-line” boards where they honestly don’t belong. In a word, zooming out to the command level allows the player to see a bigger slice of how manoeuvre-scale formations really work, in whatever era or genre you’re playing.
Speaking of genre, command tactical works great in almost any setting. In a Warhammer 40K type setting, an invading player could drop several thousand Imperial Guards (along with hundreds of vehicles) around an enemy-held space port. The map could represent forty square kilometres, allowing the invader to choose his avenues of attack (and where he’ll send his select incursions of Space Marines) with greater freedom. This, in turn, would force the defender to be more circumspect in his defences, carefully coordinating support elements, reserves, and even a possible counterattack force if the invader chooses more than one avenue of attack. This kind of game, once designed and playtested, could be run in three to four hours, rather than the weeks that would be required (along with a dozen gaming tables) if run in a “pure” tactical model.
For black powder era games, command-level systems are often the only real option for “historic” battles which were typically very large. Games like Martin Lewis’ “Waterloo” (published by Warfrog Games) or Jim Dunnigan’s “Napoleon at Waterloo” (SPI) can be played in as little as three hours, with the whole battle recreated with less than 200 pieces. Even better, these games can also be converted to play with 15mm miniatures, with each figure representing a regiment or brigade. In a “true scale” 15mm setting, the Battle of Waterloo would require upwards of 200,000 miniatures and a board 110 feet on a side (roughly two miles at 1/100 scale).
For ancient or medieval settings, command tactical is often the best option for many of the reasons as Black Powder era-battles. Community member redben has a great topic going in the Historical Forum about his ongoing Dux Britanniarum campaigns (see his forum topic in Historical Town Square). Many fantasy-genre games like Kings of War are more “heroic,” where powerful warriors or wizards can lead armies or hordes into battle, yet still bring their powerful personal abilities into potent tactical use. Whether it’s a gold dragon’s breath weapon or an F-4 Phantom dropping napalm, the tactical effects are remarkably similar.
My all-time favourite game, however, remains Avalon Hill’s classic PanzerBlitz, set on the Eastern Front of World War 2. Counters represent platoons, and with 40-70 pieces on a side, players can command regiments, brigades, or even the business end of a division if they’re particularly ambitious. This is sometimes an unrequited love, because PanzerBlitz and its sister games (Panzer Leader and Arab-Israeli Wars), admittedly need modifications to their original rule sets to make them run like the masterpiece games they try so hard to be. Once these tweaks are made, however, these games can provide decades of not only entertainment, but genuine learning. They are so granular yet so playable, so multi-layered, and so intricate, that you literally find yourself emulating real World War 2 tactical doctrine…before you ever read about it in the history books. There are no “top-down” rules regarding special tactics or abilities for certain armies, the Germans aren’t better at certain things because the game tells you so. Simply put, what worked on the battlefield works in the game because of its inherent design, the comparative capabilities of the units, and how those units are assembled into real-world formations.
So how can a command-level game provide narrative for a traditional tactical table top? Because the two levels are pretty close, you don’t have to get that deep into command-level gaming to reap this narrative benefit. Simply set up a command tactical board, thumb through some battle maps of the engagement in question or, if it’s a fantasy or sci-fi setting, sketch the larger battle out on a sheet of graph paper. Believe it or not, you’re “playing” at the command level. Square off the section of this larger map that represents your tactical game, and you get an instant picture of what’s really going on in relation to your table. Why does the defender have to hold that bridge? Because the next battalion in line has just suffered 80% casualties and the survivors need five more minutes to withdraw their wounded across it. Why does the attacker need that hilltop? Because the division commander can’t launch his main attack until your company takes that observation point for a 500-gun artillery barrage. This is the kind of context and narrative that improves upon the “find the secret suitcase” game or the “because there’s a game marker there” objective model.
In the interest of fairness, however, it bears noting that there are some aspects of command tactical gaming that some players may find disappointing. Because the engagements are so much larger, true “heroes” are pretty rare because it’s harder for a single man, vehicle, or unit to effect this larger picture. “Cinematic moments” still happen (like when the British squares held against the French cavalry at Waterloo), but they’re admittedly less frequent. There are less dramatic “KABOOM” moments where whole handfuls of playing pieces are blown off the table. This is because the pieces represent units of dozens or hundreds of men, which lose cohesion and become “combat ineffective” long before they are annihilated outright. These are typically more scientific, less visceral games. They are exercises in averages, and averages are rarely spectacular.
Still, for my money, command tactical is probably my favourite level of wargaming. So what do you say, Colonel? Can you fight with binoculars and a radio as well as you can with a rifle and bayonet?
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"In a “true scale” 15mm setting, the Battle of Waterloo would require upwards of 200,000 miniatures and a board 110 feet on a side (roughly two miles at 1/100 scale)"