In our continuing series on the The Four Levels of Wargaming, we’re discussing games that present the “higher command” aspect of military operations. So far the response has been great, proving that many Beast of War subscribers were already familiar with and enjoying such games. The next step up is the “operational level” wargame, where players step into the war room to pull up a chair at the general’s table. But even if such games aren’t your thing, taking a quick look at how they work can inspire a wealth of narrative for your tactical table top game.
Unlike even the largest tactical game, where players can command battles of thousands, the operational game steps above the individual battlefield completely. Here we enter the true “campaign game,” where engagements are resolved with a single die roll, like taking a shot on a miniatures table. But here the armies are “taking shots” by launching divisions, brigades, and regiments at each other instead of bullets, arrows, or missiles. With each turn representing anything from twelve hours to a week, the campaign is waged over a span of weeks, months, or possibly even years. Only through the accumulation of dozens or hundreds of such tactical engagements is the operational game resolved. Because “smaller” tactical games can’t offer the true scope of support assets, logistics, or joint operations—and “larger” strategic games dilute the purely military mechanics with necessities like diplomacy and economics, “medium” operational games probably offer the most complete picture of military operations.
If operational level wargaming sounds like a nightmare of complexity, it doesn’t have to be. The classic game Tactics II (Avalon Hill, 1958) is a great entry into operational gaming. It presents a fictional continent divided between “blue” and “red” army groups of about half a million men each. Playing pieces are divisions (about 15,000 men), plus corps, army, and army group-level headquarters units. Despite its brilliant accessibility, Tactics II contains rules for logistics, specialized units like mountain, paratrooper and marine divisions, fighting in cities, defending river lines, seasonal weather changes, and even tactical nuclear weapons.
That being said, operational gaming has also produced some of the most titanic and complex wargames ever produced, like Diffraction Entertainment’s TSWW (The Second World War) series. One game in this series (Mare Nostrum, covering the Mediterranean, Near East, and Africa) comes with 32 map segments and over 5,000 counters.
Operational games are typically driven by a hex-and-counter system or by computer (Matrix Games’ Operational Art of War series is a great example). When units engage, the combat strengths and characteristics are usually compared to arrive at a ratio, various factors are considered, a die is rolled, and the results applied to both attacker and defender. Therefore this is no longer a case of “if you have a shot, take it,” since sending a small battalion to attack an entrenched division twenty times its size is a death sentence.
Intelligence is almost always limited in operational gaming, so your opponent’s forces are rarely clear to you. Counters may be inverted to hide their identity (along with judicious use of “dummy” counters”), or a computer game might simply not display enemy forces. Another common method is “force markers.” Here, pieces represent battle groups, columns, or fleets—with the actual composition of these groupings tracked on place cards the opponent can’t see. Players can allocate individual units among these task forces as he sees fit, subject to movement and supply rules. A group’s composition is only revealed when it engages, or when the enemy makes an espionage, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, or cyberattack check, depending on the rules and era.
In operational-level games, the supply and condition of your units matter just as much as the strength of your units. A battalion of Shermans can easily defeat a battalion of King Tigers – if the Germans have no ammunition or fuel. Some games handle supply in an abstract manner, classifying a unit as “in supply” if it can draw a route back to a friendly HQ or city. This invites the practice of envelopment and isolation, surrounding a large body of enemy troops and starving them out before launching a final attack. Stalingrad, anyone?
Other games, especially naval or sci-fi space games, require you to bring a certain number of “supply points” to your combat element, often through use of tankers or freighters. Such convoys are vulnerable to attack, requiring you to allocate naval resources to protect them. Things get easier once you take a major port, a rule demonstrated by Acre in the Crusades, Cherbourg in Normandy, and even sci-fi games like Dropzone Commander. Why do you think these guys are always landing on cities? Okay, besides the awesome terrain?
In Ancient, Dark Age, Medieval, and even Black Powder operational games, the pressure of supply drives the armies mercilessly forward. Armies in these periods were marching famines, stripping the area bare of provisions almost overnight. Only by moving to a new area could they obtain food for thousands of men and horses, a problem which made long sieges just as dangerous to the attacker as the defender. Another nasty variable in these periods was disease, against which supply was again an army’s only real defence.
For all their detail, however, there are some things that operational games don’t provide. There is little “action” since all the fighting is encapsulated in the combat resolution formulas. There are no heroes and few “cinematic moments.” Huge battles do happen, but their full importance may not be apparent until later in the campaign (as often happens in real wars), or diminished amidst dozens of smaller engagements. These are games of resource management and leverage, won by meticulous planning and steady pressure rather than sudden, heroic blows.
For the tactical table top gamer, what operational gaming really offers is narrative. For example, if you’re a Flames of War player who wants to run a series of games in Normandy, try an operational-level game reflecting the Normandy battles from June through August of 1944. Even if you don’t play the game, just skim through the rules or talk to players familiar with the system. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a hundred new ideas for Flames of War scenarios, both historical and “what-if.” No more abstract “objective markers” or relying on battles that might come with the book.
This approach can be expanded into genres where operational games aren’t as plentiful, like sci-fi or 40K. Is taking an island chain in the Pacific really so different from landing Imperial Guards and Space Marines on a hostile planet, at least on the operational level? You still have to establish naval dominance around your target “island,” suppress ground defences, land troops, provide air support from your naval vessels, and protect your supply lines even while mounting sorties out against possible enemy naval counter-strikes, all while the battle is still raging on the ground. Just set up a grid map of the planet or continent you’re trying to take, use your favourite 40K minis as force markers as described above (put the Titan back on the shelf, Warren). Like brainstorming on a sheet of paper, just set the pieces up and start pushing them around, you’ll quickly see where the blind spots, vulnerabilities, and choke-points are, remembering factors like supply, infrastructure, and transport. Here is the narrative for your next epic 40K table top.
The most involved case of operational narrative driving tactical games comes in the multilevel game. Here, an operational framework is driven on a large scale map, and the actual combat resolved through traditional tactical games. These games are enormous, and have been known to destroy the sanity of gamers with Cthulhu-like rapidity. This is also too big a topic to tackle here, and will be presented in a future article.
As you can see, the operational wargame presents a vast arena of exploration for those interested in a “deep dive” of what drives the wars in which their games take place. Even if you don’t fancy “stars on your shoulders,” just poking around the world of operational wargaming can provide a wealth of narrative for the fire fights on your table top.
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"These are games of resource management and leverage, won by meticulous planning and steady pressure rather than sudden, heroic blows..."