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"Can playing wargames teach tactics?" Topic

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paul liddle18 Nov 2020 6:29 a.m. PST

Is the title of an interesting thread on Boardgame Geek

I wondered if it would make a good discussion here. So can playing wargames teach tactics that are transferrable to actual combat?.

Major Mike18 Nov 2020 6:36 a.m. PST

Yes, but, they can also teach bad tactics or lead you to make incorrect assumptions.

Martin Rapier18 Nov 2020 6:49 a.m. PST

As Major Mike says, yes they can, but they can also teach things which irl are going to get you killed in no time at all.

Personal logo Saber6 Supporting Member of TMP Fezian18 Nov 2020 6:53 a.m. PST

They can reinforce doctrine and teach the why of control measures

Personal logo 15mm and 28mm Fanatik Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2020 7:24 a.m. PST

The military seems to think so:



Legion 418 Nov 2020 8:01 a.m. PST

Yes very much so … as I said another thread here. We played both board games and minis. Even in ROTC, '79-'90. Once on active duty on occasion we did use sand tables or large maps. When I was with a Separate Mech Bde of the 18th ABN Corps. The Bde Cdr, who was one of my Mech Bn Cdrs in the ROK.

He had me go thru the proper channels[paperwork & phone calls]. Contact GHQ and get our Mech Hvy Bde, a USSR MRR and Tank Bde in 1/285th scale. The Intel guys based them in Plts. Painted them OD for us and Brown for the USSR. We war gamed on the floor of the Bde Rec Ctr. With terrain made by our Training Aids activity on main post.

So we did play with toys back then too !

Rakkasan18 Nov 2020 8:22 a.m. PST

Yes. It provides another mechanism for the team to visualize what is trying to be done. The sand tables and map exercises that Legion 4 mentions are augmented (replaced?) by computer based training today.
At the tactical level, training done with real people on real ground is the most important. However, preparing for that physical training by playing a "game" can make the physical training more efficient, saving time and money.
The problem arises when budget or other constraints limit the training to sand tables, maps, and computers.

Sajiro18 Nov 2020 9:12 a.m. PST

I'd say 'no', using the same caution that Major Mike points out in his post. That said, I've run a Tactics Club for Army ROTC Cadets for several years that features war games, boardgames, and computer games. The emphasis is not on tactics because RL and what the games try to model as RL don't always line up neatly. I should also point out that simulations being something different to games in my mind. The club has been good for recruitment, retention, and getting the Cadets to talk about how to train or just the profession in general.

soledad18 Nov 2020 9:17 a.m. PST

As long as you know what you want to learn. Playing a straight up game of Team Yankee will not teach much. Using the same terrain and figures and an umpire which "leads" the game you can learn alot.

Use the right tool for what you want to learn/teach be aware of its advantages and disadvantages.

So I totally agree with Rakkasan.

Legion 418 Nov 2020 9:34 a.m. PST

Yes, whatever the tool, it is important to teach and train all levels of military ranks these very valuable lessons.

"Rakkasan !" Served with 3-187, 3d Bde, 101, '80-'83, Rifle PL, 81mm PL & Bn S3A … ⛩

Skarper18 Nov 2020 9:48 a.m. PST

I'm sure it can be a great training aid. Kriegspiel pioneered this and that style of game, double blind with umpires, can I'm sure really help at all levels from squad level skirmish games to the very largest formations.

However, many popular games teach the very opposite of what needs to be learned and could be dangerous.

I abhor the lack of opportunity fire in many of the newer sets [Flames of War and Warhammer40k are two major offenders here].

The most effective games I ran were Vietnam Skirmish games. I provided all the figures, terrain, wrote the rules, designed the scenario and ran the NLF/PAVN side. The players never knew the rules, victory conditions or what enemy forces they faced.

There were a few ex-army people who played and they found it challenging and realistic. Some of the more recreational wargamers never really got the hang of it.

paul liddle18 Nov 2020 10:21 a.m. PST

Great responses, however, would an ordinary civilian wargamer be tactically useful in a real life combat situation?.

I don't mean shooting guns so much as using tactics learned on the wargames table giving some insight into how to act and react in reality.

I personally think we'd be useless.
What do you reckon?.

Skarper18 Nov 2020 10:49 a.m. PST

Oh – totally useless… Quite a high percentage of trained professionals are useless too….

There might be an occasional individual who could translate what they had learned playing instructive games into real life situations. 1 in a million perhaps.

Somebody who joined the military after learning about tactics through games might learn faster, but there are so many aspects of real life combat that need to be trained for that by itself it's got to be almost negligible.

USAFpilot18 Nov 2020 11:14 a.m. PST

Yes, to a limited extent.

RudyNelson18 Nov 2020 12:40 p.m. PST

Yes it can

UshCha18 Nov 2020 1:16 p.m. PST

I am a civilian and yes I think my knowledge of tactics is better than not having any knowledge.

However could I put that into practice no! Even at platoon level tactics is only a small part of the skill set, Leadership, Logistics, physical ability and even my map reading is not good enough. I certainly could not as one professional soldier put it see Cover less than 6" a vital skill that needs to be taught like all the others.

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2020 3:12 p.m. PST

I could rattle off a whole slew of war games, both miniatures and board games, that made ludicrous assumptions.
When you grasped the nuances of the rules, you could "win" by doing things that would be absurd in "real life".
One example a friend told me was of a Napoleonic miniatures game that totally emphasized morale.
A quick analysis showed that he could charge ordinary French cuirassiers with limbered Royal Horse Artillery. He routed the Cuirassiers. The problem was that the rules designer saw no problem with that.

I can think of a few WWII rules that allowed similar.

Too many times a game designer's misconceptions make their way into their rules.
I would hesitate to apply lessons learned from these rules in a real life situation.

Legion 418 Nov 2020 3:18 p.m. PST

I personally think we'd be useless.
In most cases, but there is more to soldiering than tactics …

Even at platoon level tactics is only a small part of the skill set, Leadership, Logistics, physical ability and even my map reading is not good enough.
Yes, good observation …

Quite a high percentage of trained professionals are useless too….
No too many professionals I knew or know. Albeit everyone who joins the military is not a super soldier. Or even a just good soldier.

I have no idea where you got the idea that quite a few are useless. You means when it comes to tactics ? Yes many non combat arms branches are not really trained in detail in tactics. Only the basics at best. But I'd take one of them over a bunch of guys who just play wargames …

As good as a tactician I believed I was. I know I was rated being pretty good at it. Not my rating, but my superiors. I was a better Co. Cdr than Plt Ldr. Because of more training and experience.

But my Bn and Bde Cdr didn't need another tactician, they needed a Logistician. And hence that became my legacy … sadly … frown But even as a staff officer you still needed to demonstrate tactical & technical expertise. You are still an Infantry, FA or Armor Officer in one of those type Bns. At Bde level the Bde Cdr had me filling an Ordinance or Quartermaster Officer's slot. But I still was a trained and experience Infantry Officer … Expected to use that training as the situation presented itself.

That is just the way it works in the Army or military in general as some here can attest to.

Tactics become a small part of everything you do. But you must show leadership no matter what …

John OFM I totally agree. As I played wargames since the '60s, probably like you and many here. old fart Many times after getting out of the Army and playing wargames I had to say, that is not the way it is done really. And change the rules to try to reflect a bit more reality. But as a game designer if you never were e.g. a trained Infantry or Armor Officer or even NCO with some experience who knows how things really work … Your assumptions will probably be off a bit. Or more than a bit …

So once again guys I'm biased when it comes to this … as are some of the other Vets here.

Oberlindes Sol LIC Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2020 6:22 p.m. PST

Even in ROTC, '79-'90.

Sophomore year of college was like the best 10 years of your life, it appears.

arealdeadone18 Nov 2020 6:44 p.m. PST

It's mainly taught me to blame my dice and rules designers.

Personal logo gamertom Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2020 7:19 p.m. PST

I've looked at this from the perceptive of what can I learn about how combat was performed at such and such period. And I usually define tactics for this perspective as being how a unit changed from one formation to another, moved from point A to point B, how it maintained alignment while moving, what type of fire method was taught and used (fire by file, fire by platoon, volley fire, and so on), how an officer controlled the unit, and what did melee actually consist of (typically not actual hand to hand fighting; one side often would retire before this happened). So from that perspective, most rules do not teach you much about the tactics of a period.

The perspective taken in the BBG article is largely from the individual. Not having been in any military, much less combat, the only experience I had to relate to was participating in a field exercise with a US Army Reserve unit in East Tennessee back in the early 1980s (when there were still Vietnam vets in the Reserve). That field exercise taught me a thing or two that a wargame typically would not. The two that stick out in my mind are how focused one becomes on one particular area in your field of vision no matter how often you tell yourself to look around (you forget to) and how one must consider a covered way to leave an ambush site (so you don't get shot trying to get away). Hopefully I'll never have the occasion to use either of those lessons.

smithsco18 Nov 2020 7:31 p.m. PST

I'm a civilian. Used to air soft and paint ball a lot. Got to work with some National Guard troops as irregular untrained opfor. Very good friend's dad was battalion CO. Thought it could be useful. We always defeated the guard troops.

A few lessons I picked up:
-Defense is always easier
-when fighting irregulars you need overwhelming force
-Wargaming didn't teach me a thing. But reading about real life campaigns, battles, and smaller engagements sure did. One time we sucked them in to an encirclement in the same way Hannibal did at Cannae. Worked like a charm. Once we successfully assaulted a defended position uphill. We didn't make Lee's mistake at Gettysburg. We went around to the right. Can't really pull all of these feats off on a limited table top.

Legion 418 Nov 2020 8:47 p.m. PST

Sophomore year of college was like the best 10 years of your life, it appears.
DOH !!!! huh? Correction : ROTC '75 – '79 … Active Duty '79-'90 … USAR '91 … old fart

RTJEBADIA18 Nov 2020 9:00 p.m. PST

Not to detail but Smithsco I'm just curious— didn't Lee try to go around to the right throughout the battle and encountered blocking forces? I'm far from an expert on the events of Gettysburg. Regardless, how did your uphill assault manage to break through (or was it more of an encirclement)?

I'm not a soldier, but I've definitely found gaming to be a useful way to learn in other careers. And, incidentally, tabletop (and computer) wargaming definitely makes for better tacticians in sporty wargames (airsoft, humans vs zombies, this sort of thing), not so different from how learning strategy and tactics from one (good) tabletop wargame might transfer, to varying degrees depending on similarly of subject matter, to another. Also, if I've heard historians and archeologists argue wargaming (mixed with reenactment) can help with understanding what ancient descriptions of battles actually mean. My understanding is that in all of these cases it is insufficient by itself but failing to wargame (in a broad sense, so including military training games) often leads to some serious misunderstanding.

Counterpoint tends to be that games (especially the most popular ones) tend to be sufficiently removed from reality that some elements might lead to bad lessons that must be unlearned. However, my experience (again primarily not with wargaming in terms of real world application) is that gamers tend to have a good understanding of what abstractions are being made and so usually have a pretty good sense of the "bad lessons" are even if they don't necessarily know alternatives to the bad lessons (For example, most players know when they are abusing a game mechanic rather than using a real world tactic because they don't know how to ‘picture it' in real terms). Cases where the BS detector are less likely to to go off are generally actually good lessons with insufficient context and so might lead to tactical or strategic mistakes but are the probably better to over-rely on rather than to not conceive of the lesson at all (ie overrating morale— better to overrate morale than have no concept of morale affecting combat).

Legion 418 Nov 2020 9:34 p.m. PST

didn't Lee try to go around to the right throughout the battle and encountered blocking forces?
You mean at Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top ? link

Lee failed to listen to Longstreet to not become decisively engaged and go around Gettysburg. Then head towards DC. Forcing the Union to get off the high ground. To go after the CSA and try to block their advance to DC. It's classic Sun Tzu …

Thresher01 Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2020 9:49 p.m. PST

Worked in WWII, apparently with some/many of the Wrens there shaming some leaned admirals, and helping to win the convoy battles in the Atlantic.

Chimpy Supporting Member of TMP19 Nov 2020 11:56 a.m. PST

I think that wargamers are going to have a lot of trouble getting over the "eye in the sky" mentality which comes from playing wargames. In other words in a wargame, you have too much information and you can see too much. It's a different story when you're lying down in the bush and you probably can see very little of anything.

A double blind system can help. (but it's a lot of work for your average gamer). I played in a double blind game with a respected Modern wargamer. He went completely to pieces when faced with no information on the whereabouts of the enemy and didn't know what to do. (not to run him down because he was a really nice guy). Sometimes you just have to do something to get on with your mission and hope for the best.

Skarper19 Nov 2020 12:17 p.m. PST

The wargame with the Wrens defeating the Admirals was very much a limited intelligence game.

Lindybeige has a good video on it…

YouTube link

Another issue wargamers would have is learning to 'command' or 'lead' rather than directly control units. You might have the right plan but if you can't convince your subordinates to carry it out you're going to fall flat on your face.

Legion 419 Nov 2020 3:24 p.m. PST

Another issue wargamers would have is learning to 'command' or 'lead' rather than directly control units. You might have the right plan but if you can't convince your subordinates to carry it out you're going to fall flat on your face.
Very much so … Real Leadership is not like in a wargame.

RTJEBADIA19 Nov 2020 6:45 p.m. PST

Re the eye in the sky mentality, I think any wargame designer interested in "realism" should try to at least use computer games to help understand this issue— both at the level of planning reconnaissance and gaining intelligence and at the level of an individual leader within the environment.

Skarper19 Nov 2020 11:32 p.m. PST

Another aspect of real life versus wargame situations is the need to act in real time.

In games we get much longer to ponder and analyse probabilities than in real life combat situations.

The original Kriegspiel rules did not stop the clock while the players thought about what to do next.

UshCha19 Nov 2020 11:51 p.m. PST

Even a few dummies and blank markers can mitigate eye in the sky issues, although I have read of folk to whom such things are unacceptable, all toys on table being a must.

At expert level we use maps and the defender is not allowed to move without being in a position to spot an enemy. Not perfect but too much for some as has been said.

Yup Stargrunt 30 sec limit, somtimes we now suspend it for our own rules. Its not the rules, but the game has far more options, like chess some pieces can move a good distance like in the real world.
Should we put a very tight time limit? Proably but for fun not too tight but 2 minutes is unacceptable any time.

Some time pressure is vital, players mistakes is a rule light way of getting fog of war that is realistic.

Legion 420 Nov 2020 7:01 a.m. PST

Well … yes and no … what is the time scale of each turn ? 10mins, 30mins, 1 hours, 1 day, etc.

Now since many things are happening at the same time. You can't do that on a gaming table effectively. The closest you can get is using Unit Activation with order counters and Opportunity Fire.

How do I know that ? Beside I have been playing war games since the 60s. But most importantly my 10 + years as an active duty Infantry Officer, '79-'90. Having gone thru a lot of training and gaining vast amounts of experience. In many situations in many environments. Plus usually being evaluated in one way or another.

And guess what … sometimes I didn't do it right … sometimes I just plain Bleeped text up ! And sometimes those poor performances still "haunt" me today. Fortunately no one was injured or worse. Which yes does happen, I saw it a few times. But again fortunately it was none of my troops. However, the loss of any trooper is sad.

And I did learn from "failure" … but fortunately it was not always that often. Of course again hindsight is 20/20 …

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