In our continuing series on the The Four Levels of Wargaming, we’re discussing games that present the “higher command” aspect of military operations. As we near the end of the series, we come at last to the most expansive scope of all, the strategic level game.
In a strategic level wargame, players control entire nations, coalitions, or empires. Therefore, if you “play” a captain in a tactical game, a colonel in a command tactical game, and a general in an operational game in the strategic game you take on the role of President, Prime Minister, or Dictator. Thus, these are no longer strictly military games, since you’re also running a nation’s diplomatic corps, political agendas, scientific and technological development, and wartime economy. In some games, even factors like religion and media relations are important. A single gaming piece could be a corps of 60,000 men or an army group of half a million. Industry production is tracked on charts measuring billions of pounds. Turns could represent anywhere from a month to centuries, in which case gamers are no longer heads of state, they are playing whole dynasties or perhaps the state itself.
As we’ve said before, just because a game encompasses a larger scope doesn’t make it more complex, challenging, or “advanced.” After all, the case could be made that Parker Brothers’ Risk™ is a strategic-level wargame (admittedly, some would consider Risk to be a board game more than a true wargame). On the other end of the spectrum we have systems like Decision Games’ “Totaler Krieg!”, Avalon Hill’s “Rise and Decline of the Third Reich”, and ADG’s “World in Flames.” These games come with large maps, detailed rules, and thousands of counters—allowing players to movies fleets, armies, and air armadas across continents and launch million-man offensives the way some games fire off a burst of machine gun fire.
In a strategic game, even though a great deal of politics is involved, the coalitions are more or less set. In a World War II setting, for example, Germany is always an Axis power, although politics can be leveraged by both sides to influence whether Spain or Turkey enters the war along with them. The Soviet Union and United States are always Allied powers, although exactly when and how they enter the war is subject to all kinds of factors that the players can control and compete over.
I bring this up because some players may distinguish between “strategic” and “grand strategic” games. In the latter, players really do control the full course of their nation’s destiny. In a grand strategic game set in Game of Thrones, for example, the Starks of Winterfell may be allied with the Baratheons one turn, then turn on the Lannisters, and then finally cut a deal with the Targaryens. In such games, the balance of game play slides even more heavily into areas of economics, espionage, and politics . . . it’s theoretically possible to win without ever drawing your sword or firing a shot. Even in grand strategic games, however, there are usually absolutes. In our Game of Thrones example, it’s doubtful anyone will be entering an alliance with the White Walkers.
A great game that highlights this “free-politics” quality is Avalon Hill’s classic “Diplomacy,” where players represent one of the Great Powers of Europe prior to World War I. A word of warning, however, this is a cutthroat game of political double dealing so infamous that many have tagged it with the line: “Diplomacy – Destroying Friendships Since 1959.” Not that there’s any backstabbing in Game of Thrones. That whole Red Wedding thing was just a misunderstanding, right?
So far in this article series, one common thread has been highlighting how these larger-scale games can help construct meaningful narrative back to the tactical table top games so popular on Beasts of War. But in the case of strategic level games, this connection frankly starts to get a little thin. If you’re playing a Soviet captain ordered to hold a vital crossroads with six tanks and 75 guards riflemen, do you really need a view of the war from Stalin’s map room? Strategic games view war from such a high level that their potential for tactical narrative is tenuous at best.
That doesn’t mean they can’t help, however. A few years ago I ran a year-long series of tactical wargames and RPG sessions set in World War II. I used a set of Rise and Decline of the Third Reich to set up a “situation map” of Europe, Russia, and North Africa, using small bits of sticky-tack to fix counters on the board so I could stand the map up on an easel. Each week the pieces would move around a little, tracking the war’s progress. When my players arrived each week, I could kick off the session with a quick “situation brief” (complete with a little wooden pointer stick) that really helped immerse the players in their part of the war. But at the end of the day, it was more of a visual prop than an actual system we were running.
That being said, however, strategic games can be a lot of fun in their own right. They can also be very instructive for players who really want a deep-dive into a particular war or setting. For example, it’s perfectly fine for a Flames of War player to just accept that the Soviets will always outnumber the Germans, set up his game, and have fun. It’s also fine for players to watch a few TV documentaries and accept that the Soviets have bigger lists because “the Soviets had more men, factories, and logistical support.” But playing a strategic level World War II game actually challenges the German player to not only fight the Soviets, but balance resources with a war in North Africa and western Europe. Then there’s Sicily, Italy, and possibly Scandinavia, all while the British and American players are actively reducing your production budgets through strategic bombing. Meanwhile, the American player is pouring millions of men and billions of dollars across the Atlantic to staging bases in England. How much of your production do you put towards U-boats to try and stop that? How much foreign aid do you send to Turkey or Spain to try and get them in the war on your side? How much do you invest in security, with French, Polish, Russian, Greek, Yugoslav, Italian, and Norwegian partisans wreaking havoc across your lines of supply and communication? Only when you’ve been faced with some of these decisions (in a purely academic sense, of course) do you understand “first-hand” why those Tigers on the windswept steppe appear so lonely.
While they may not provide the tactical focus many of us are used to, strategic and grand strategic games offer the greatest scope of context. They present perhaps the final answer of “why is this battle taking place?” And not to get too heavy here, they’re also the closest a wargamer is likely to get to learning why nations are “forced” to go to war at all, what they hope to get out of it, and how (thankfully) these wars finally come to an end.
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"“Diplomacy – Destroying Friendships Since 1959”"
"They present perhaps the final answer of “why is this battle taking place?”"