Real War vs Wargames

What is the difference between wargames and what really happens in war?  While working on our new Battle of the Bulge design, I can’t help but notice the impact of unit boundary lines.


Well it’s another cold snowy Sunday.  Too miserable to go out.  The perfect day to work on our Battle of the Bulge design.  Lol…  Is that a common wargamer thing or am I just a nut?  Do you guys do that too?  Play games like Battle of Moscow, Bulge and Austerlitz in the winter?  Then Vietnam, Pacific, North Africa in the heat of summer?  We need to make a Normandy Pub Battle that you can play at the beach!


I digress.  So we are working on our new Bulge game.  For a starting map, we just printed off a real military map of the battle.  We’ve come up with an OB and made a set of Kriegsspiel blocks set to scale for Divisions. 



In the opening turns, 5th Panzer Army in the center, did well and broken open the front easily.  6th Panzer to the north got stalled and bogged down. 



As a wargamer, I figured no problem.  Next turn, I’ll just reinforce success.  I’ll peel all the armor off of 6th Panzer and shift them south.  Leave the infantry there to keep slugging away.  I don’t want to hold up progress.  It is critical to drive as deep and fast as possible in the opening of the operation. 


That is all true but there is a huge problem with this in the real world:  the unit boundary line.  You can’t just randomly send units willy-nilly all over the map on a whim.  All of those free SS Panzer Divisions can’t move there.  That is out of there area of deployment and chain of command.  They are in the 6th Panzer Army.  All the openings are in 5th Panzer’s area of operation. 


But 5th Panzer doesn’t have enough free units to exploit this opening.  I know!!  The technical military term for this is:  SNAFU,  Situation Normal, All F*#%ed Up. 


I suppose you could make a shift like this but it would take time.  Meetings, order changes, reassignments, etc.  By the time you go through all of that, it’s too late.  The open door has been shut. 


Here is another issue.  Look at the German 7th Army down here in the south:



5th Panzer in the center has broken out.  They are spread pretty thin and dangerously stretched out.  7th Army is all bottled up.  All those units sitting there with nothing to do.  Why?  Unit boundary line.  In fact, look at the unit boundary line drawn for 7th Army.  It is the long skinny one drawn at the bottom of the map:


By the way, that is Patton’s 2 Corps sitting off the edge of the map waiting to come in as reinforcements later.


How is 7th Army even supposed to do that?  They are supposed to drive long and deep.  Fine along what MSR (main supply route)?  Look at the terrain.  Up and down hills, over rivers, through woods, no we’re not going to grandma’s house.  Not a single road to advance along.  Luckily most of the Army is infantry.  They only have 1 armored division and 1 mech division for support. 


Also, look to the south of 7th Army.  Clear open sailing!  Instead of trying to slog along west, I really wanted to break out south into Luxembourg.  Guess what?  Can’t.  It’s beyond the objective boundary.  Sigh. 


Who in the world drew this boundary line anyways?  Imagine being the 7th Army commander here.  I’d be pretty miffed.  I would have protested this mission up the chain of command right from the get go.  How could 7th Army ever get anywhere with this objective?  Of course, protesting the feasibility of orders up the chain, through the German High Command at this time wasn’t very productive. 



All of this raises a number of questions:


1)      How important is drawing unit boundary lines in orders?  Is this seemingly arbitrary task much more critical to the mission success than we realize? 

2)      Strictly following the historical boundaries at the opening of the Battle of the Bulge seems to have a huge impact.  Did these boundary lines doom the operation right from the get go?  (in addition to all the other problems working against the Wehrmacht.)   Could simply redrawing these lines and adjusting the opening OB create much better German results?

3)      What is your experience in real world, military operations with this?  Have you seen boundary line issues cause a mission to fail?  How much planning, effort and thought is actually put into drawing them?  How could this be better?

4)      From a game design perspective, should wargames enforce proper phase line and unit boundary limits?  Would that make them more accurate and better models?  Would that ruin them as games and make them less fun?  Would they be more fun?

5)      From a military science perspective, what can we learn from wargames?  How could this be used in real world command to improve unit performance?  Are Phase Lines and Unit Boundaries bad?  How could you command and conduct operations without them?  What type of command system would it take to allow real world units to freely shift as needed along the front without time delay and confusion?


What are your thoughts?  Comment below:



15 thoughts on “Real War vs Wargames”

  1. 1. All control measures, and boundaries in particular are incredibly important. Boundaries clearly delineate to subordinate commanders where their areas of responsibility are, but also where the areas that they have freedom to act are. Within those boundaries they can do whatever they want, within ROE etc. Finally, they mark lines where adjacent formations need to link up, at least via liaison, if not interlocking arcs of fire, so as to ensure that there are no gaps in the overall line. There’s not really a better way to plot all this, other than a boundary line.
    2. I’ve not studied this battle, so can’t make much comment. In the style of staff planning that I understand the Germans of that era to have adopted, those boundaries were probably somewhat malleable ahead of time, with subordinate commanders potentially requesting adjustments, based on their own detailed appreciations of their own areas. What you’ve described in the scenario doesn’t seem that out of place however. For the 7th Army, being primarily infantry, then they would naturally be given a smaller Area of Operations (AO) due to the smaller area that infantry can control, as well as the AO with the roughest terrain – as this would not affect infantry that much compared to mobile units. Same goes for infantry in an AO with a lack of roads. As for the breakthrough opportunity not being exploited, this is exactly what higher formation reserves are for. Again, I don’t know this battle, but there ought to be a reserve force held ready by the higher commander, to be pushed forward in this situation, along with standby tasks for the forward elements to be prepared to carry out forward passage of lines to these units.
    3. In my professional experience, the inclusion of boundaries is one of those things that you forego at your own peril. They massively simplify things for everyone, as in the real world very few people get the sort of overview you have in a wargame. Instead it’s more like ‘we’re here, and those guys are over there, across that ridge-line”. Mixing units from different chains of command in the same AO is practically the definition of chaos.
    I’ve not seen boundary line issues cause a mission to fail. There’s a process if you really need to cross a boundary. They do cause difficulty from time to time, but a competent command chain will just re-draw them as required ahead of time. Subordinate commanders will see a boundary going through something, like a town, that really needs to be allocated to one element or another, and ask their commander to move it. If that adds to the work of one subordinate unit, they can be allocated additional support. After the staff planning process, and subordinate commanders back-briefing their superiors, the boundaries usually make sense, and match the tasks in each AO, and the composition of forces carrying them out.
    If resources need to be concentrated in one AO after everyone crosses the start line, then that’s what artillery, air support and reserve units of mobile forces such as armour, are for.
    4. I don’t think so. The problem boundaries solve in real life aren’t really an issue in wargames like this. I’m mainly talking about the coordination effect they have here. As there’s only one person controlling the elements on each side, there’s no need to de-conflict space and time in that way. You could add rules to simulate lack of coordination, and then more rules that would make boundaries and other control measures solve those problems, but I don’t think that sounds fun. Sounds more like rules that add nothing to the game.
    5. The biggest thing that wargames give you when planning for real world operations is helping you get outside your own bubble, where your plan is going to go perfectly, and explore the what-ifs. Explore the ways things could go wrong. Explore what sort of contingencies you might need to plan for, or potentially discover that a plan has so many ways it could go wrong it’s not worth it.
    As I’ve said above, phase lines, boundaries, and all the myriad of other control measures used in real world operations are not bad, they’re essential. You can’t be there to direct traffic at every intersection, and tell each lower level commander where things are. Instead you set up these control and coordination measures ahead of time, and when everyone follows them, things go smoothly (assuming you set it all up right).
    You can run operations without phase lines and boundaries specifically, but that would be in a situation where other control measures are used instead. I.e. instead of phase lines, where units hold until the next phase is initiated, you could have report lines, where units call in each time they cross one. This allows you in the HQ to track the progress of units, and if one is getting too far ahead, you just call them and tell them to pause. Sometimes subordinate units are conducting separate tasks so far apart that boundaries are not required. Sometimes the whole force will be in one formation, and boundaries don’t make sense – instead the control measure at play is the formation, and the relative location each element is supposed to be in.

    For your final question, you presuppose that having units moving laterally along the front line would be a good idea. See above about reserves and supporting assets. Shuffling back and forth along the front line is a bad idea exactly because it’s very difficult to coordinate. There are fundamental problems in doing so. You can’t just have everyone shuffle along to fill a gap, as there are existing prepared positions being occupied for example. Do you just leave gaps in the line by grabbing every second unit? Now they’re all away from their original commanders. Do you grab one whole subordinate unit to be sent away to help reinforce? At least it’s a complete organisation now, but now you have an even bigger gap.
    One better way, if possible, is re-draw the boundaries for the next phase of the operation, and re-allocate the area of responsibility as required that way. This doesn’t address your issue in this game though.
    The issue you describe in this game is a classic example of why you should always hold a force in reserve, and why usually the commander that is able to be the last one to deploy their reserve in a decisive manoeuvre is the going to be the winner.

  2. In the Wargame Atlantic Wall there are Corps and Army Boundaries.

    Turns are 8 hours, however, even if a HQ has the logistics, units need to rest 8 hours a day, or face serious consequences. When units are resting, Boundaries can be adjusted. Or units transferred.

    Units can be one hex over a boundary line, but I think there are penalties for intermixing.

    It is possible to attach a unit such as a Separate Tank BN, or even a Regiment from another Division to a HQ, but there are logistics complications for doing so.

    We found situations often matched historical outcomes.

  3. We addressed this very neatly, I think, in Joe Miranda’s BULGE 20 game published by Victory Point Games. It is an ARMY level game that focuses on G-4 and seeing the operation from a “command staff” perspective.

    • Sounds interesting, what did you do? How does it work? Can you go into more detail? If you have time to talk about it in more depth, I could post it as a separate blog highlighting your game. Let me know by email if you are interested. -Marshall

  4. Boundary lines can be shifted. Entire corps-sized formations can be attached and detached between armies. Often those things go together, done by Army Group headquarters staff on fragmentary oders. Recommend reading “War as I Knew It” by Patton, which details these sorts of operational gymnastics that Third Army went through all the time in its push across France and into Germany. At the end of the war, as it pushed into Czechoslovakia, Third Army along controlled approximately 540k soldiers, as other armies along side it were squeezed out by the operational situation, losing their troops to Third Army.

  5. My Primary was Mech Infantry on Active Duty, then Armor in National Guard. My Secondary was computers and as a staff officer I helped to run brigade, division, and corps computer assisted war-games (Command Post Exercise – CPX), besides having war-games as a hobby since I was 12. As always, it’s the logistics we need to talk about – and Military Police. You need the M.P.’s to direct follow-on traffic down the correct routes; there are never enough of them. And you can’t just send combat units off in another direction if you expect their supply train to find them. Patton changed the Third Army direction of attack in what, four days? And it is an event worthy of the History books. And his supply chain wasn’t crossing another army’s. The thing to do is to widen one unit’s boundaries and narrow another. Turn a unit at a slant to cross another unit’s Area of Operations and you will regret it. That said, units at all levels were often pulled back behind the lines, shifted over, and then moved forward again. But time is never on the German’s side against the Western Allies.

  6. I would add, in this war-game and the German units on the south side, there is the map-edge end-of-the-world problem. If you are part of a break-out into enemy terrain and there is no one to your left (in this case) you should be able to swing wide around resistance and back onto your main route without a problem – assuming the map-edge doesn’t get in your way. In this case though, the 7th Army was a defensive force without a lot of offensive combat power. It was supposed to glide along the southern edge of the breakthrough and protect the left flank using the rough terrain to aid them. Still, as a Combat Arms leader I was taught it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission – and success is usually forgiven. In other words, I’d swing further south.

    • Hi Jason!

      I don’t think we will Kickstart it. We’ve been working on this a lot this week. I think we finally have the right color scheme for the pieces. We are going to have to adjust the map colors to match the pieces better.

      We also made a lot of progress on the combat system and the interaction of the different unit types. Our key focus now is on command, logistics and oil for the Germans.

      We are hoping this is ready later this year. December would be nice! 🙂

  7. I am not particularly familiar with this battle, and in general, modern war isn’t my forte, so I’ll bring additional questions. Isn’t this about the time that Clauswitz was beginning to be taken seriously, the way Jomini was the golden boy for those fighting the ACW? This strikes me as a possible attempt to make sure subsections of the force don’t endanger the whole affair by falling into culminating point of the attack issues. It does make sense, but as someone more focused on Roman military history, I’m reminded of how freedom for a junior officer to exploit situations as they develop paid huge dividends for Rome at Cynoscephalae.

  8. When I read the blog entry, the first thing I thought was how Bulge 20 deals with transferring units and then I read the comments and the publisher himself mentions the game as well.

    Units (counters) in the game are Corps and Army level, Corps are initially assigned to various Army(s). A Corps assigned to an Army isn’t even on the map, the Army unit moves, and a display reminds you what Corps are in each Army. You can’t just switch units all over the map willy nilly.

    Cards are how you give orders to units. There are 4 basic types of cards: G-1 Admin, G-2 Intelligence, G-3 Operations, and G-4 Logistics.

    If you want to detach an individual Corps from an Army, you play a G-1 card. Now the Corps can move on the map by itself. If you want to attach it to a different Army, you play a 2nd G-1 Card.

    It is a brilliant system, well worth exploring.

    Going back to your questions, yes, I think (good) games need to take boundaries and parent-child organization into account. In the actual Bulge battle, 10th Armored belonged to Patton’s 3rd Army, it was transferred to the 1st Army, the 82d and 101st Airborne were part of Eisenhower’s reserve and were transferred to 1st Army; there were lots of moves like that. A mechanism that allows this doesn’t have to be rules-heavy, but it should be there. There should be a way to switch units, but it should come at some cost to the players.

    …oh, and as somebody else mentioned, fatigue is also good, far too often wargamers are fighting their units 24/7/365, with no time off for rest/recovery.

  9. Our gameds are smaller, big ones are regimental size but over a narrow frontage. Phase lines virtual or real are important for the following reasons in game which we consider reflects reality..

    1) in our rules troops degrade with lossed and tend to become disorganised. Its important to have in your own mind where and when you need to get them together and when they need to be replaced.

    2) Simple orders are fast to distribure so Artillery targets now “Charlie 1 can be issued when a unit reaches its “phase line” whether you draw it in your head or on your map.

    Our experience is may gamers are just not that keen on doing the homework even at realatively small scale, So even defining FDF etc. is too much woork. Phase lines are a good idea but may be one too far for some with a less intense interest in real battles..

  10. The title left me confused when I got into the blog. Is it reality VS wargames, or a question of how the/ your wargame can mimic reality rather than vs reality?

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