Combined arms and command in hobby wargames – early thoughts

The following comments are a few early thoughts on combined arms and command in hobby games. I wrote a version of this brief note a while back; now I’ve finished reading Piercing the Fog of War: The Theory and Practice of Command in the British and German Armies, 1918-1940 by Martin Samuels, I hope to add a bit more depth to these reflections. I wish I’d read that book before Pete Connew and I wrote the Mission Command Players Manual, because it has an excellent analysis of British and German doctrinal development prior to and in the early part of WW2. It would be interesting to take this forward into the late war period, when practice, on the German side at least, was severely restricted by a lack of experienced officers and men, and a lack of resources in comparison with the Allies. Much of our development of the Mission Command game was focused on how the armies used combined arms to try to deliver successful outcomes. My comments below cover combined arms in WW2 and Napoleonics, owing to my recent activities.

In practice in the real world, co-ordination of combined arms is difficult, and this should be reflected in a model that includes command and control as significant features. This is both a mechanics issue and a decision-making issue for a game-as-model. Mechanics simplified for playability can make co-ordination easier or too easy, or too predictable for players. For example, in a WW2 game, calling in artillery by rolling for availability at point of use is over-simplified. You know in advance the probability of success and can factor that into your planning. Alternatively, if you must put the request in in advance, it has to be co-ordinated in space and time, requiring player decisions and possibly player interactions.

Changing and issuing orders takes time. This is doubly so, if you are trying to co-ordinate more than one unit. Again, in a WW2 context, withdrawing under cover of smoke requires co-ordination of the smoke and the withdrawing unit, which is probably under pressure! Command elements need to communicate both up and down, and sometimes sideways. Commanders must be free to communicate, and inability to or restrictions on communications is part of what Clausewitz called ‘friction’. Where mechanics in the game take away the human interaction element, they impoverish the environment’s friction. I’m suggesting that ‘rich friction’ is good in wargames!

It happened inadvertently in a game I played on Saturday. This was a General de Brigade 2nd edition game using the Katzbach 1813 scenario. Towards the end of the game the Prussian C-in-C changed the orders of a brigade to send it in a different direction – but the player moving it failed to implement the change and the brigade kept going on its previous trajectory. When this was discovered, the Prussians were allowed to rewind a turn and correct the move – in accordance with the changing orders mechanic. It would have been better to have retained the realistic friction generated naturally by the players.

More in some later blog posts.

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