Commanding more in Less Than 60 Miles (trlgames.com, 2019) – or – the #OODA #wargame

The goal is to collapse an adversary’s system into confusion and disorder causing him to over and under react to an activity that appears simultaneously menacing as well as ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading.

John R. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict

When I was CONNECTIONS 2019 I stopped by a table sponsored by the Army Command & General Staff College. Amongst the games present was Less Than 60 Miles: C3 Module 1 – Fulda Gap (Thin Red Line Games, 2019) designed by Fabrizio Vianello (BGG member Hanbarca) and published in Trezzano, Italy. The ACGSC folks were gushing about the game, throwing terms like “realistic” and insightful” about freely. I recently acquired the game via trade and dug into it the past two weeks. I am now ready to declare that Less Than 60 Miles may be one of the best “professional wargames” in my collection.

A “professional wargame?”

First off, what exactly do I mean when I say “professional wargaming?” In my working life I dabble in defense wargaming. This is why I try to attend the CONNECTIONS wargaming conference every year. I also recall Jim Dunnigan’s description of a wargame found in his Wargames Handbook:

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of ‘game,’ history and science. It is a paper time-machine. (Wargames Handbook, Third Edition, 1)

Dunnigan goes on to state:

The object of any wargame (historical or otherwise) is to enable the player to recreate a specific event and, more importantly, to be able to explore what might have been if the player decides to do things differently.

To be a wargame, in our sense of the word, the game must be realistic. And in some cases, they are extremely realistic, realistic to the point where some wargames are actually used for professional purposes (primarily the military, but also business and teaching). (Wargames Handbook, 3e, 1)

In many cases, realism in professional wargaming is a double-edged sword. Realism can often lead to an unplayable design. A perennial question at CONNECTIONS is “how realistic should my wargame be?” Philip Sabin, in his book Simulating War, describes this as accuracy vs. simplicity:

Perhaps the most pervasive trade-off affecting all human attempts to understand the worlds in which we live is that between accurately capturing the almost infinite complexities of reality and keeping our models simple enough to be grasped by ordinary minds and used as a practical guide for action. (Simulating War, 2)

Sabin continues:

Wargames are particularly severely affected by this trade-off between accuracy and simplicity, for two principle reasons. First…wargames have the virtue of combining most other modelling approaches into one, the downside of this eclecticism is that the complexity of each component approach is even further constrained if the overall complexity of the entire wargame model is not to exceed tolerable limits. Second, whereas some modelling techniques need only be understood properly by experts, with their conclusions being at least to some extent ‘taken on trust’ by lesser mortals, wargames are by their very nature participatory devices in which users need to have a certain understanding of the mechanics in order to benefit from the model at all. (Simulating War, 2)

A recent RAND study titled Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps points out how commercial wargames are addressing the accuracy vs. simplicity problem:

Closely related to this trend is a focus on increasing the playability of games while maintaining high levels of detail and dynamic gameplay. In the past, one of the key dilemmas of manual-style games was the inverse relationship between complexity and playability. As the level of detail increases in a game, rules typically grow increasingly complex, ultimately reducing playability. Many games from the “golden age” of the 1970s hobby gaming required hours merely to read the rules–a trend taken to parody in Campaign for North Africa (1979). Such games were highly accurate, but required players to learn complicated rules that included many exceptions. These were difficult to track even for experienced players. In response, designers began to experiment with different presentations of game rules to make play more intuitive….Commercial developers argue this will help manual games achieve higher levels of complexity while simultaneously enhancing playability. (Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps, 23-24)

IMG_0341
Found at CONNECTIONS 2019

OODA in a Wargame

The Less Than 60 Miles (LT60M) model is a different  look at the (potential) European battlefields of the 1980’s. Instead of focusing on the equipment (like so many wargames often do) the rules present a look at the battlefield through the lens of John Boyd, retired US Air Force officer and the father of the OODA LoopHere is how LT60M first describes itself:

Less Than 60 Miles is a Regiment / Battalion simulation of a hypothetical conflict between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Warsaw Pact (WP) in 1985. The map covers the central part of West and East Germany, including the whole US V Corps Area of Responsibility and its surrounding areas. Players take the role of US V Corps Commander for NATO, and Soviet Central Front Commander for Warsaw Pact. (Rules of Play, 1. Introduction)

After this very vanilla overview, the differences are then called out:

Rules are centered on the problems of Command, Control & Communications (C3), and will force the players to fight against three equally dangerous foes: the enemy, their own plans and time.

Players will find that even simple actions could be quite challenging and need to be planned and correctly executed. Players will also find that their own troops may move and act quickly while following the initial plan, but reacting to contingencies or unexpected events could be painfully slow and might seal the fate of the entire campaign if poorly managed.

Another key element, not explicitly in the rules but interconnecting them, is the OODA cycle (Observe-Orient-Decide, Act) theorized by John Boyd in “Patterns of Conflict” and used as basis for the “AirLand Battle” doctrine adopted by US Armed Forces during the last years of the Cold War.

In the end, being able to get “inside” the enemy’s OODA cycle, short-circuiting the opponent’s thinking processes, will produce opportunities for the opponents to react inappropriately.

In the Designer’s Notes to LT60M, Mr. Vianello expands on his approach:

As probably any other Grognard, I’ve been reading a devastating number of books about military campaigns and operations.

In almost all of them, I’ve found descriptions of apparently simple plans turning into a disaster due to poor planning, wrong orders or bad execution. Even when planning, orders and execution goes smooth as silk, the plan is sometimes outmaneuvered or outsmarted by the enemy.

….

In most operational and strategic wargames, replicating this kind of events is very difficult. Players have almost complete control, and units react instantly to new directives. During years, several solutions have been developed (random events, variable initiative, command points and similar), but the basic problems remained:

  • The typical time frame of a game turn is tailored to allow execution of almost any desired action within a single phase, thus leaving the enemy no possibility to react.
  • The distance covered in a single turn by a unit could be considerable, thus forcing players to adopt a continuous line of units and zones of control as the only solution to avoid being bypassed or encircled during the enemy’s movement phase.
  • Any decided course of action has no inertia and can be rapidly modified should the need arise. You don’t need a real plan, and you’re not taking anyone really by surprise unless the rules decide so.

Less Than 60 Miles tries to convey a realistic approach to the above problems by giving the correct importance and impact to four basic elements: Time, Posture, Orders and Command Chain.

In the end, the interaction between these four elements will force players to confront the underlying concept: the OODA Cycle.…By using the four elements above better and faster than the opponent, the player will get inside the OODA Loop of the enemy, undermining its capability to react in an appropriate and timely manner to the unfolding events. (Scenarios & Designer’s Notes, Designer’s Notes, 21)

Here is how Mr. Vianello describes using those elements to challenge players of LT60M:

TIME

“Probably the most important factor in war is Time. Every action needs to be executed within a certain time frame and become useless or even dangerous if carried out later.”

“…most actions cannot be completed during a single game turn. A dug-in mechanized battalion that successfully defended a town will not be able to instantly launch a counterattack against the attacker, except when using specific tactics like NATO’s Active Defense. It will need to change to an attack formation, leaving itself vulnerable to enemy reactions for the time needed to change its posture.”

POSTURE

“Posture defines the current tactical formation of a unit and has a heavy impact on its movement and combat capabilities.”

“A unit’s Posture is the result of the last orders received and limits the tactical choices available. No unit can do everything at its best at the same time.”

“Changing a Unit’s Posture will require time, and during the transition the unit will be more vulnerable to enemy actions.”

ORDERS

“Ordering large formations to move out or attack is a complicated business, usually more complicated than expected. Even the over-celebrated 90 degrees turn of Patton’s III Army at the Ardennes took 72 hours.”

“In Less Than 60 Miles, most orders will require more time than desired to be carried out. Players will be forced to prepare and execute a real plan, as changing the course of action once things started moving could be problematic.”

CHAIN OF COMMAND

“In order to issue and execute orders in a timely manner, you will need a Command Chain starting from a higher-level Headquarters and going down to the units executing the order.”

“Command Chain is not a abstract concept you’ll worry about only occasionally. Each side will have to balance the advantage of having Headquarters near the Forward Edge of the Battle Area and directly influencing the battle, with the disadvantage of making them targets for enemy air, missile and artillery strikes.”

Yesterday is today…and tomorrow?

Design-wise, LT60M finds success by drawing from tried and proven designs of the past wrapped in a game system that emphasizes OODA. Mr. Vianello tells us, “In order to handle attrition, Less Than 60 Miles refines one of the most interesting and innovating concepts of SPI’s “Central Front” series: Friction Points, here renamed Attrition Points” (Designer’s Notes, 23). The combat system is, as Fabrizio puts it, “inspired by NATO: Division Commander, in my opinion one of the most realistic portraits of modern mechanized warfare” (Designer’s Notes, 25).

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Lest you think that OODA is best in a wargame of the past, US Marine Corps officer Ian T. Brown, in his book A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare, points out that Boyd’s OODA Loop is highly relevant today. He observes that, “[Boyd] viewed both blitzkrieg and counterinsurgency through the same lens, aimed at the same objective–the adversary’s mind–and implemented with the same tenets of orientation, tempo, ambiguity, deception, and asymmetric application of strength against weakness.” (p. 192) Although LT60M is set in the 1980s, the design is both relevant and easily portable to the modern wargaming battlefield.

Looking at the larger picture, the OODA Loop is not only useful as a basis for the design of LT60M, but for professional wargaming as a whole. Matt Caffrey in his book On Wargaming includes the OODA Loop as one of the three theories or models that explain why wargames writ large work. Caffrey writes:

In time, Boyd realized the F-86’s more-experienced pilots, bubble canopy, and hydraulically boosted controls allowed its pilots to observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) faster than their adversaries. That, not top speed, made all the difference. In time he realized that staying a move ahead of your adversaries was at least as important at the operational and strategic levels of war also. This lead to the gradual development of his “Discourse on Winning and Losing” (a presentation available on-line). This final theoretical work goes as much beyond his ‘OODA Loop” as Einstein’s general theory of relativity goes beyond E = mc2. 

A fundamental reason why wargames “work” is that the side that makes more-effective use of them (all other things being equal) complete OODA loops more quickly than an adversary that does not use wargaming effectively or at all.

….

The synthetic experience derived from all types of wargames can create virtual veterans far faster than actual combat creates real ones–and at a fraction of the cost in lives, time, and treasure. (On Wargaming, 285-286)

Not a perfect game but once you Observe, Orient, Decide, & Act….

In order to accomplish all the above LT60M can turn fiddly. Units will be stacked with markers for posture and time and maybe more. The map hexes are sized a bit small and the many colors can be confusing (each hex has a Terrain Type and may have Terrain Features). But if you work your way through the fiddling you find a ‘game’ that really makes you think. For some ‘casual’ wargamers the challenges of Time, Posture, Orders, and Command Chain may not be exciting enough and the rules too fiddly. But for a professional wargamer, using the OODA Loop to frame a game design creates insights into the modern battlefield like few other designs deliver.

Less Than 60 Miles is not a perfect game, but it does a very good job of creating a playable version of the 1980s battlefield framed though the lens of the John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. I would very much like to see this design pulled forward into today, particularly in a Baltic scenario. I hope the game finds an audience not only with professional gamers, but with ‘casual’ wargamers as well.


Annotated Bibliography

(Unless otherwise noted, annotations are shamelessly stolen from Matt Caffrey in his book On Wargaming)

Brown, Ian T. A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2018. (Download for free online)

Caffrey Jr, Matthew B. On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped History and How They May Shape the Future (Newport Paper; no. 43). Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2019. (Download for free online)

Dunnigan, James. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames. Bloomington, IN: Writer’s Club Press, 2000. (Easy to read, all-around guide to wargame history, design, and application.)

Sabin, Phillip. Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games. London: Continuum, 2012; repr London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. (Though the book’s focus is designing and developing wargames as a way to understand a given conflict deeply, it is also the best contemporary book on wargame design.)

Shlapak, David A.; Michael W. Johnson. Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. (Download for free online)

Wong, Yuna Huh; Sebastian Joon Bae, Elizabeth M. Bartels, Benjamin Smith. Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019. (Download for free online)

 

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