Saturday 1 October 2011

Chains of Command

It is often said (so it must be true) that the task of a command system in a wargame is the opposite of that in real armies.

In real armies, the chain of command, command, control and communications (C3) or whatever you want to call it is aimed at ensuring the ability of a general to get the units to do what he wants. A unit commander has enough problems engaging the enemy without worrying about the bigger picture. He needs direction from above if his unit is to take the enemy in flank, or exploit that gap, of whatever.

In modern armies, with modern communication systems, it is quite possible for a general to give orders directly to a single vehicle or a company commander (or even, potentially, a platoon or section). However, they do not, for the very good reason that the unit commanders would go ballistic if that happened, or at least wonder what their subunits were up to. The potential for confusion, disruption and chaos is simply too great.

In a wargame, of course, there is just one individual to act as both general and unit (and, possibly, subunit) commanders. What I mean is that the player has to act as the overall commander, but also move the subunits in accordance with the ‘orders’ given by the general, that is, himself acting with another hat on.

Put like this it is fairly clear how accusations of gamesmanship or over-elastic interpretation of those orders can occur. Looking at the situation as a unit commander, the player can quickly re-assess the situation and mentally adjust the orders the general has given; in extreme cases he might simply do something else.

So the problem the wargame rules writer is faced with is different from those which a real life general has to deal with. The general can issue his orders, and expect someone else to carry them out. The wargamer issues orders (how this happens differs in different rules) but then has to execute them. The real life sub commander might misunderstand the orders, ignore them, do something else either disastrous or brilliant, or he might carry his orders out. In a wargame, the sub unit will do what the ‘general’ wants, because the general is also the unit commander.

There are a number of responses to this sort of problem. Firstly, there are the options of multi-player and committee games. Here, the commander is isolated from the action in some way, and can only issue orders to the next level of the chain of command, which can do likewise to their next level and so on. This is fine, but in my view often lands up verifying the old adage that war is 90% boredom. One of the lessons of committee games is that doing something as an army takes time.

Another response to this problem, and the most usual among wargamers, I suspect, is to ignore the problem. Most reasonably modern rule sets have some way of limiting the moves a general can make. DBA PiPs or Polemos Tempo Points put a calliper on the number of bases that can be moved at any one time. This is a bit unpredictable, and the number of moves is moderated by a random dice roll, but actually allows for a fair amount of planning in advance. Most wargamers will happily accept this as ‘realistic’, and enjoy the challenge of adjusting their plans to account for the odd bad dice roll, either in command points or in combat.

I’ve sort of mentioned this problem before, when I suggested that the wargamer should, in fact, only issue orders to the top level of his command. In terms of the English Civil War, these would be the commanders of the wings and the centre. For example, at Naseby, Fairfax would issue commands to Ireton, left wing cavalry commander, Skippon, infantry commander in the centre, and Cromwell, right wing commander of cavalry.

The issuing of commands would, in fact, be done at the senior commander’s conference before the battle. Naseby is interesting in this respect because the Parliamentary army moved backwards after its initial deployment because Cromwell judged that the ground was too wet in the initial position. This problem went back to Fairfax who decided to change the location of the army, and the army was redeployed.

Once the battle started, the key commanders lost a fair bit of their ability to control events. Ireton was wounded and his wing was beaten. The Parliamentary foot was soon under pressure from the more experienced Royalists. Cromwell’s horse was victorious, but this took some time, partly due to poor going for cavalry.

So far, the second level commanders had done comparatively little except lead their men into combat, or at least watch them while they won or lost. Now, Cromwell took the initiative, and led part of his wing onto the flank of the Royalist foot. Fairfax, who as army commander had pretty well finished his job, called up the unengaged so far forces (his own foot, horse and lifeguard) and led the assault on the now beleaguered Royalist foot. And that, more or less, was that.

Now here is the problem for wargaming. If a set of rules only allowed that level of decision making, it might get lauded as being nicely historically accurate, but it would probably be described as being dead boring. After the initial deployment, Ireton’s only decision was to support some foot, for which he got wounded and captured. Cromwell’s only decision was to turn in on the foot, which was hardly a taxing one in the circumstances, while Fairfax’s decision was made at a point where the battle was more or less won.

So I suppose the point here is that, in order to be interesting, the wargame and the wargamer have to operate at these different levels. We need to stories of the first line Parliamentary foot units being beaten back, to engage us in the overall narrative of the battle.

So maybe I am wrong. Having a wargame where the player is the overall general only is not such a good idea.


  1. Surely the advantage in such games (apart from the realism) is that they would make big campaign games much more do-able? Playing such games in a campaign context would then really ratchet up the tension involved with those 5-6 decisions. Hopefully then Fairfax's and Cromwell's decisions at Naseby would have something in common with the tension of a 'break point' in tennis?

    And thanks for the great post! I can see myself really mulling over this one (although I'm still mulling over the previous one too...)



  2. I think the build up in tension over a campaign would make it much more worth while. The more that is invested in a wargame, the more tension arises, I'd guess.

    Mind you, the most important decision about the Naseby campaign was made by a committee in London...

  3. What are your thoughts on a system of mediate resolution in which the Player(s) must dice for the interpretation/implementation of orders, so that the Player/General issues orders that then get filtered through the dice before being implemented by the Player/Commander?

  4. I think that it is an excellent idea, but the problem is in implementing it in a non-clunky manner.

    I think Piquet was on the right lines, with its card resolution process, so you as the general don't know how a given fight is going until it was settled, nor if orders are received and understood until the unit moves. That said, I also think the Piquet was too complex to work easily and intuitively, and also looks at the problem from the other end than you are suggesting.

    Similarly, chance or courier cards, or rolling against a table, would work but could slow the game down considerably.

    To some extent, the idea of giving each commander characteristics and referring to them is the neatest way forward, but does require considerable work, in advance, that you do not know will ever be needed in the game.

    I do recall a game report from someone who landed up with a duel between the baggage train commander and a unit commander over the delivery of a consignment of boots. A roll against the characteristics resolved the puzzle as to why; it transpired that the unit commander had bedded the other's wife the previous week...

    Sometimes the game does seem to take over when you do this.

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