Tag Archives: Operations research

The 200 Foot General

This is the third post on my Operational Research driven wargame rules (and it’s probably about time that I came up with a catchy name for them, ideas in the comments section most welcome).

One of the most unrealistic things I find in most commercial wargames that I have read or played is that it is very easy for players to change their plans and give new orders to their troops every turn. This is so common that there’s even a name for it, the 200ft General.

What is the Problem?

The concept being that the player is like a General with perfect perception and control of his troops, and he can react to things that they aren’t yet aware of because the player can see the models on the table.

Here are a couple of relevant quotes from the Operational Research that demonstrate why this is a problem.

“a detailed, well-rehearsed plan blocks acceptance of the quick orders rattled out over the radio ten minutes before an attack starts. This mix of friction and mental block can be seen to play a part in nearly half of all mission failures.” Murray in Brains & Bullets

“complicated plans were much more likely to fail.” Murray in Brains & Bullets

So this gives a constraint to the game design. A successful OR driven wargame will ensure that it isn’t easy to change orders and that the more complicated a plan is the more likely it will be to fail.

Potential Solutions

This isn’t a new problem, many wargame designers have grappled with it over the decades that wargaming has been popular. Lots of games have mechanisms of one sort or another to counteract this, ranging from hidden movement and deployment through to complex activation systems. All of these have problems, but at least they’re trying to solve the core problem of limiting player decisions to those that are reasonable for a commander on the ground.

  • Hidden movement & Deployment. This is a very good solution, and one that lots of games try to implement. It has difficulties in that you either need to trust the other player or have an umpire. Failing that some pre-game organisation to produce maps that can be annotated helps. It tends not to be used for competition wargames.
  • Written Orders. This is what real armies do, and so far as I’m aware only one commercial game has attempted this (Spearhead). It slows down the game, or increases setup time. Possibly producing a pro-forma might speed things up.
  • Unit activations. This seems to be common in popular rules. The actual mechanisms vary considerably, but the gist of it is that as a player you cannot be sure whether or not particular units will be activated. About all you can be sure of is that you cannot move your entire army. A good example of this is the DBA PIP system. A general gets 1d6 unit activations each turn.

I think that a good solution would be streamlined and easy to implement by players. Something like this is likely to have a major impact on gameplay speed, and we’re looking for ‘fast’ as a default setting. Each game turn needs to take 5-10 minutes to run through so that a whole game (including setup) can happen in about 2 hours.

Do you have any other potential solutions to this problem?

The Stress of Battle – Part 3 – Op Research on Terrain Effects

504th Regiment, 82nd Airborne troops advancing...
504th Regiment, 82nd Airborne troops advancing through snow-covered forest during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the third part of my extended review of The Stress of Battle by David Rowland. It is such a strong piece of operational research that I thought that it would be useful for wargame designers (and players) to understand what the research evidence is for what went on in WW2 battles.

Fighting in Woods

The data comes from an analysis of 120 battles that took place in woods or forests from the US Civil War to the Korean War. It also applied all the things from the previous research and tried to see how woods differed from combat in other types of terrain.

Woods Open Urban
Attacker casualties per defence MG (at 1:1 force ratio)




Force Ratio Power Relationship




  • Defence is less effective in woods, most likely because limited fields of view mean that the engagement ranges are shorter
  • Combat degradation is greater in woods during night battles
  • Artillery suppression is less effective in woods (presumably because the trees absorb some of the shell splinters)
  • Attack casualties reduce with attacker experience (after ten battles attacker casualties are half of that of inexperienced troops)

Continued in Part 4 – Operational Research on Anti-Tank Combat

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Book Review – The Stress of Battle by David Rowland (Part 1)

Real shooting tactical exercises in Smardan sh...
Real shooting tactical exercises in Smardan shooting-range with the 100 mm anti-tank gun M1977. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not exactly a book review, more of a synopsis of a great work of Operational Research by David Rowland. The Stress of Battle: Quantifying Human Performance in Combat is the end result of years of work by David Rowland and his team at the Ministry of Defence. Rowland was the father of historical analysis as a branch of Operational Research.

This particular work looks at a combination of field analysis experiments in the 1980s using lasers, well documented WW2 engagements and a handful of battles from other wars. Almost every page in it is packed with evidence or explanations of the complex methodology used to ensure that you could get controlled results from an otherwise messy and chaotic environment. If you are playing or designing wargames then this is one of the books that you absolutely must have on your book shelves (and have read too).

When I was reading the book I was often underlining or marking sections with post-it flags. In particular I drew the following interesting snippets from the book:

  • Tanks suppress defenders, but you need at least two tanks per defending MG to have any effect;
  • Combat degradation is about a factor of 10 compared to performance on firing ranges
  • Anti-tank guns focus the attention of tanks from suppressing MGs, and the bigger the anti-tank gun the more attention it diverts (unsurprisingly);
  • Fortifications & obstacles (i.e. properly prepared defensive positions) increase defence effectiveness by a factor of 1.65;
  • In defending against a 3:1 attack, the average rifleman will inflict 0.5 casualties on the attackers whereas a MG will inflict 4 casualties;
  • 1 in 8 riflemen will cause 4 casualties, and the other 7 none;
  • MG equivalents for casualty causing are: 9 rifles = 1 MG; 1 medium mortar (81mm) = 3 MG;
  • Combat effectiveness grows with experience, improving the casualty exchange ratio;

This is just a taster of what the book contains. Really worth reading. Not only that it is fantastically well illustrated with loads of graphs, diagrams and pictures from the field exercises to illustrate the points in the text.

Continued in Part 2 – Operational Research on Urban Warfare


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