The Four Levels Of Wargaming Part 5: Multilevel Games

July 28, 2014 by crew

Well, here it is, everyone. At last we come to the end of our series on the The Four Levels of Wargaming. Thanks so much to the Beasts of War community for all the positive feedback, questions, and interest. When I was first asked to write these, I was a little unsure of the reception I’d get because I was new to the community and discussing types of games not typically featured on the site. Rarely have I been so pleased to be proven so wrong.

Throughout the series, one recurring theme has been how to tie the context of a larger-scale “command style” game back to the narrative of the tactical games with which we’re all familiar. Immediately the gamer’s mind lurches to the inevitable conclusion: join the two models together into an epic “campaign game” setting. Depending on your genre, you could move battalions, cohorts, regiments, war bands, fleets, legions, or divisions around on your operational map and when opposing forces meet up, resolve the action with a tactical scenario.

Welcome to the madness of multilevel gaming. Our straightjackets come in sizes S through XXL, please allow 5-10 days for shipping.

Bolt Action Campaign Map

The concept of multilevel gaming sounds simple enough, and when handled correctly, can be one of the most rewarding and immersive games of all. But quicksand is immersive too, and multilevel games can quickly get out of hand if players don’t watch out for certain pitfalls.

Any two of the “Four Levels of Wargaming” can theoretically be joined into a multilevel game, but some combinations are more common than others. For example, players could run all of Waterloo in a “command tactical” model, where the board represents four square miles and each playing piece is a brigade of 1000-2000 men. But when the action really gets thick, players could agree to resolve the action in “pure tactical” model (focusing on La Haye Sainte, for example). Fantasy is also great for this combination because the genre allows for very high-powered individuals in relation to the armies in which they stand. So while a 10,000-man battle can be resolved in a larger system, heroes, warlords, wizards, and dragons can square off in a separate “skirmish” table.

More commonly, however, players want to build an operational-level framework over a tactical-level series of games spanning weeks or months. A great example of this was recently presented on the June 1st Weekender XLBS, where Łukasz of Wolsung fame presented the “Alternate Bulgaria” campaign played at Micro Art Studios. Here, players moved armies around an operational-level map divided into Risk-like territory zones. When they met up, a Bolt Action game was built to resolve the clash. Results of the game were then applied back up into operational-level armies, and play continued.

Bolt Action Battle

For many players, this could be the ultimate source of gaming narrative. Through this overarching operational framework, players are compelled to formulate a “big-picture” plan in which their smaller tactical battles all play a part. You don’t have to read sci-fi fluff or military history to know exactly why this battle is more important than the one before, why this bridge is vital, which castles can be sacrificed, or which of your own space ports should be obliterated before they fall into enemy hands. Here you ARE the fluff, and no one understands the larger context better than you because you and your opponents are the ones the one creating it.

Before embarking on a multilevel game, however, ask yourself some questions in order to give your campaign the best chance of success.

Afrika Korp

One: Does the campaign need a referee? Look, no one likes to be the “designated driver” on party night. But since there aren’t really any published rule systems that seamlessly combine tactical and operational-level games into a single system, you may need an impartial arbiter to handle tricky situations. This is especially true when it comes to applying results of tactical games back up into the operational-level framework. “Impartial” may well mean “not playing,” an especially harsh sentence considering the referee will wind up doing much of the work.

Two: Do your players REALLY like the tactical game? This is important because it’s tough to estimate how many tactical games will eventually be required before the campaign is finished. Whatever your estimate, double it. If you’re using Kings of War to simulate the struggle between rival dukedoms, for example, you’d better have players that really love Kings of War because you could well be playing games three or four nights a week in order to advance the campaign at any kind of pace.

Panzer Leader

Three: What balance do the players prefer between the operational and tactical systems? On the one hand, you can run a highly-detailed series of tactical games with only the barest minimum of operational framework. In a Flames of War example, players could print a map of northern France, slap a grid on it, and use coins for force markers (heads for Allies, tails for Germans). A nickel is a 500-point army, a dime is a 1000-point army, and a quarter is a 2500-point army. These “coin divisions” moves three squares a turn, and when opposing forces wind up in the same square, set up a Flames of War game with forces based on the amount of money each side has in the square. Conversely, a highly-complex operational system including command hierarchies, logistics, transport infrastructure, air support allocation, special forces, partisans, and weather could be run with only a careful selection of the most important tactical engagements run at all. Having an agreement on where this operational-tactical balance will lie is important to the campaign’s success.

British Tanks Roll Out

Even once all these questions are resolved, the multilevel campaign game still faces one potential challenge: its sheer size. If you try to run a tactical game every time opposing forces meet on your operational map, you’ll be playing a LOT of games and run the risk of player burn-out. Additionally, the vast majority of the tactical games dictated by operational map movements are going to be imbalanced to the point of silliness. Whereas two sides of a chess table may be balanced, the queen is always a vastly more powerful individual piece than the pawn and when you zoom down to resolve the queen vs. pawn “tactical battle,” the results can appear ridiculous. Assuming that players are allowed to deploy their operational-level forces more or less without restriction, the basic “physics” of the campaign are going to produce 300-point lists fighting 2000-point lists with startling frequency. But does anyone really want to play that kind of 40K, Bolt Action, or Kings of War game? Thirdly, scheduling can be a problem when two forces meet on the campaign map but one of the owning players can’t make it to the club to resolve the battle. These conflicts can logjam the campaign game long enough for the players to lose interest.

Dark Star

One suggestion is to have an operational-scale combat system ready to speed you through such bottlenecks, with both players’ permission, of course. This is especially handy if you’re using a published operational game system, simply use the combat resolution system that comes with the game. Or, if you don’t have an established system to handle these battles quickly, make up one of your own. Say a 1500-point Flames of War force tries to force a mountain pass controlled by a 500-point blocking force. Each army could roll a d6 for each 100 points in its force, with the defender getting an extra 5d6 for defending such a narrow position (here’s where that referee really comes in handy). In an open field that smaller force would present little more than a speed bump, but in the narrow valley it just might put up a damaging “300 of Thermopylae” style fight. I’ve also included a sample combat resolution chart at the end of this article, which can hopefully spark some ideas if nothing else. In any event, having a “shortcut system” ready and waiting will cut down on the number of games you’re playing, eliminate “pointless” games that would normally require an hour of setup for five minutes of play, and provide a way around annoying scheduling conflicts.

Chaos Space Marines

Another suggestion to resolve this issue was presented by vetruviangeek in the comments of the Operational-Level Gaming article. Rather than play out every tactical combat created by operational-level movement, players could select one combat per operational turn to be resolved in a full-fledged tactical game. These selection could be done in secret (folded slips of paper) to be revealed simultaneously. Or, the “loser” of that operational turn’s initiative might be compelled to announce first. If both players agree, the battle is set up and run. If they choose different combats, perhaps the initiative winner’s choice prevails or he has an advantage in some kind of roll-off, further modified by factors such as supply, intelligence, and air superiority. Such a “battle selection” mechanic also opens the nefarious possibility of players “nominating” combats they don’t actually care about, distracting their opponent with a big noisy tactical battle while their true thrust sneaks quickly along the flank on the operational-level map. Like they say in poker, “Don’t play the game. Play the man.”

Resolution Table

Of course, this only scratches the surface of multilevel gaming, but more specific examples are tough to get into without focusing on one genre or another. So post below with questions, thoughts, or ideas, and help us expand on this immersive topic.

James Johnson

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"“Impartial” may well mean “not playing,” an especially harsh sentence considering the referee will wind up doing much of the work..."

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"In any event, having a “shortcut system” ready and waiting will cut down on the number of games you’re playing..."