The Secret to Operational Wargaming

With the aid of a number of willing and helpful wargaming minds, we try to expose the secret to operational wargaming, and make the process transparent and accessible to the gaming masses.

Or to put it another way, we get some clever wargamers from to help me overcome my fear  of trying to make any sense out of large scale chit-shuffling wargames.

For a number of years I’ve admired the big operational wargames from a distance. After a few too many Cognac’s, I have even invested, installed and attempted to play them. Only to get as far as their brief tutorials, and then fumble about clueless as how to make any real progress.

So, I decided to open up my wargaming inadequacies to the good folks over at the forums. Hoping that the hive mind of the community can come up with the key to unlock the Secret to Operational Wargaming!

Let me explain my shortcomings.. I seem to be someone who always has trouble seeing the big picture and fighting on so many fronts all at once. Rather than generalise about all operational wargames, let me use an example of a fairly current game, namely VR Design’s  Decisive Campaigns: The Blitzkrieg from Warsaw to Paris (WtP).

Now, I REALLY WANT to be able to play the WtP game through, understand its key concepts and flex my strategic muscles within its mechanics. But, I find my focus is always too small and localised. I’m always befuddled by all the details and I can’t seem to grasp the higher strategy. When I get down to the individual chit level, I end up playing tiny chunks of the map in a simplistic way, a bit like a game of Risk. With stacks of multiple chits, I have trouble abstracting unit composition, because there aren’t chits with just tanks, or chits with just infantry, there are mixed units, of various strengths and various numbers. How on Earth do you assimilate all this information and play out the individual moves with any overarching strategy? The answer is I don’t. Totally overwhelmed from the get go. Like a mental block I can’t unlock.

A macro-management game like Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge I can handle. I see the overall objective, and I see I can send an order to a command HQ and the subordinate units will follow through (using a mighty fine supportive AI), and I don’t have to worry about them. The game plays out in the broader strokes, and I’m happy to play at that level. But, with a chit shuffler like WtP I have to make every move and every attack! In addition, I have to try an apply a broad stroke strategy to these micro-managed plays, and I find that incredibly difficult. The scope seems too big, too overwhelming, with no tangible abstraction to hold onto like a familiar crutch.

There was a deluge of good advice and help in the thread. I’ve attempted to distill what made the difference for myself here. What has given me the confidence to approach operational wargaming with excitement again. Seeing it with “fresh eyes” and a different perspective. What I deem to be the SECRET that most wargamers know…

you need an approachable plan..

“Top Down” Strategic Planning

Assess your objectives.

Identify your Armies/Groups and plan in broad strokes how you’re going to attain the objectives.

Use your strategic assets (Air and Rail) to  gather intel, inflict casualties or move your troops.

“Bottom Up” Tactical Play

Focus down at the Corps level  (“be in the moment”) with only their localised tactical objective in mind

Move your troops.

Make your attacks.

Play out their manoeuvres, then move onto the next Corps, and repeat.

Top Down, Bottom Up.


Rather than be overwhelmed and lost in a map full of hundreds of units, I can theorise in broad strokes at the “top down” level, without worrying about individual units and formations. I can basically see in my “minds eye” the macro-managed movements I want to make. Then, I switch to the “bottom up” play and can bite off chunks of conflict, at a manageable level of units and formations, with a short term goal broadly following the larger strategy.

Here are some of the other useful ideas that surround the topic of Operational Wargaming.

  • You can’t know and understand everything, accept you’ll make mistakes, and you’ll learn from them!
  • Read around the subject matter, knowing the historical outcome often helps you familiarise yourself with the goals – then you can come up with interesting alternatives!
  • Familiarise yourself with the Map, knowing where armies and objectives are spatially is part of the battle.
  • A plan is just a plan, you need to be able to adapt and revise it.

I’d like to thank all the posters on the forums, they’re a real nice set of chaps who are always willing to help out. If you read the thread you’ll notice special thanks should go to jjdenver, whose post sort of opened the door to “the secret” for me personally. But there are so many others, I can’t name them all here – if you’re interested have a read – and perhaps chip in with your experiences and Secrets to Operational Wargaming!

6 thoughts on “The Secret to Operational Wargaming

  1. Interesting read. I have some of the similar problems you do. I see a map full of chits and get paralyzed and can’t make my first more. It is the combination of starting with a lot of units on a huge map that makes it difficult to gain traction.

    Now, in a game like Civ V I don’t have the problem because I can build up from one city and one unit to a hoard (not to mention that Civ V is easier to grasp then most serious wargames). I’m probably going to start my own journey in WtP soon!

  2. One more thing which complicates playing these games for me. I want to feel like I am being ‘real’ commander and approach the scenario like it is my first and only attempt. After the first playthrough I feel like the additional information I learned about how it plays out is kind of like cheating. I know I shouldn’t feel that way, but it is hard to shake.

  3. So, what game(s) would you currently recommend for somebody fairly new to operational wargames?

  4. @Ola, I would recommend starting with something like Decisive Campaigns: Blitzkrieg from Warsaw to Paris, simply because it’s good. It has a lot of historical flavour, and it’s very easy on the eye. My second in line would be one of the Schwerpunkt titles, possibly Anglo-German War (AGW) – although I have a soft spot for the first title Russo-German War (RGW) – but it is 11+ years old now. Check out my Crimean peninsula AAR for RGW. Schwerpunkt are currently developing their engine and combining the RGW and AGW games into one World War II Europe game, worth keeping an eye out. Ron Dockal’s games are just very satisfying to play operational games.

    Other popular choices, would be The Operational Art of War – particularly if a wide range of scenario’s covering a variety of conflicts is important to you. It’s showing it’s age, even with the new lick of paint, but it is a solid operational level chit shuffler. I’d say move onto this one as you become proficient. Also, the SSG titles (and theres a whole range of them, Korsun Pocket, Battles in Normandy, Battles in Italy, Battlefront, Kharkov etc) are interesting operational games in their own right – very boardgame in execution, but they have fixed screen resolutions and they are garish in visual presentation and quirky in their UI.

    Lastly you have the monster game, Gary Grigsby’s War in the East, this is probably the game you’ll gravitate towards as you become a seasoned operational wargamer. Although it’s layered approach of control, allows even beginners to move some chits about and see results. But theres a lot of numbers under the hood.

    HPS & Tiller Software do a lot of Panzer Campaign operational titles, but for a beginner I’d say stick with something more approachable. If you can accept the Tiller way of doing operational warfare, there is a lot of choice on offer, but personally I’ve found it’s an acquired taste, and the old re-iterated engine coupled with the aging graphical presentation always leaves me wanting. If you like modding, HPS is where it’s at.

    So, personally, I’d say DC:WtP and then possibly RGW/AGW. There’s a whole lot of operational gaming there for the aspiring general.

  5. @Ola Hansson – I just mentioned Unity of Command in another thread, but it is also my answer to your query. It redefines “simplicity, but with depth”, allowing you to focus entirely on planning and executing on your strategy, with no fiddly numbers or interface to get in your way. It doesn’t hurt that the presentation is simply stunning either. I believe it is even on sale still, but don’t quote me on that.

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Ian Bowes / spelk