The previous posts of “On Wargaming” part 1 and part 2, examined the definition of wargaming and provided a digital example. Let’s take a step back and think more broadly about further defining the types of wargames. Believe it or not, there are levels to warfare. No, not levels like in a video game, but rather levels as in the scale of operations. These levels range from extremely broad on a national scope, all the way down to the individual. It’s important that we start by creating some definitions to go off of.
Ian Speller (2014) notes the following levels of war:
Grand Strategy: Level of war at which a nation, or a group of nations, determines national or multinational strategic security objectives and then develops and uses the national resources to achieve those objectives.
Strategic: Level of war that translates national policy into military objectives.
Operational: Level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve major objectives within theaters or other operational areas.
Tactical: Level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to achieve military objectives. (pg. 37)
Other publications define only three levels of war as strategic, operational, and tactical. For example, in the War gamer’s Handbook the strategic level is defined as dealing with issues that are important to national authorities. The operational level is defined as covering theater-level operations, and the tactical level concerns local operations (Burns, n.d., 70). Somewhat differently, Hughes and Girrier (2018) define the strategic level as where planning for theater-level operations is carried out. The where, why, and what forces to commit are decided for a campaign. At the operational level, the commander delivers forces to the scene of a battle and sustains them through the campaign. Finally, at the tactical level, commanders work out how the forces are to fight and transform latent combat potential into visible combat power (p. 136).
Put another way, we could say that the tactical level is the world of the individual and how specific weapons and tactics are employed. It’s the tip of the spear where the trigger-pulling happens. The brave men who shed blood and tears are led by the wholly incompetent and unknowing junior officer who only cares about their next promotion and getting medals as they demand that you blindly follow every idiotic order they give including sending you over the precipice into the jaws of glorious doom. The operational level is the world of the commanders and their staff. It exists largely on a cognitive level and links the tactical objectives to the overall strategic objectives. It’s the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) that’s full of digital computer screens, maps, boiled-over coffee, and out-of-touch field-grade officers who yell at you over the radio inquiring as to why you’re not moving at 100 mph uphill through the impenetrable jungle. The strategic level is the world of the flag officers and the military as an organizational entity. It aligns with and carries out policy objectives. It’s that annual policy seminar or conference with the 4-star general or admiral whose name you should know, but don’t care to remember because their name is always on the guest list as the keynote speaker anyway. It’s not like you’ll ever meet in person anyway. Throughout this whole dog and pony show every one sits around and endorses overwhelmingly orthodox, vague, and unimaginative principles. They reminisce about the simpler glory days of WWII and the Cold War when General Curtis LeMay simply dropped bombs on everything and called it a victory. Today, we’ve repackaged it and called it strategy. In the meantime, that O-6 who is shooting for his first star is sucking up to the highest-ranking officer in the room, and the recently retired General G.I. “Joe” Rambo is retelling the same joke for the millionth time in hopes of scoring a book deal and a job as a consultant working for some major defense contractor. Everybody laughs awkwardly and secretly wonders why the service is spending another trillion dollars of taxpayer money on that new self-licking ice cream cone. The grand strategic level is the world of the nations. It involves the most abstract elements of politics, the military, economics, history, and society. Martin Van Creveld (1985) opines that the elements of grand strategy have hardly changed since the Stone Age and that the factors which govern strategy are usually slow to change (pg. 18-19). In the modern age, grand strategy is the big annual state dinner with every dignitary, ambassador, King, Queen, Senator, Representative, Prime Minister, President, Joint Chief of Staff, and self-appointed East Coast celebrity/back-stabbing, power-grabber in attendance. Wine and booze flow like rivers, Filet Mignon is served fresh off the cow, and diamond-encrusted private jets are handed out as gifts along with a complimentary roll of gold-leafed toilet paper. Everyone pats themselves on the back as they walk down the red carpets and bemoan the sad fate of the national economy, the war effort, and the latest episode of the Kardashians.
The higher we go, the most abstract and theoretical the war becomes. It is worth noting that these levels are very much interconnected and do not exist independently of one another. Therefore, there may not necessarily be a clearly defined boundary between each of them.
Examples of games at each level
The aforementioned interconnected nature of the levels of warfare applies to games as well. While there is a debate in the gaming community about the classification of some of these games as “real-time strategy vs. real-time tactics,” I am classifying these games in accordance with our previously established definitions as opposed to gaming definitions. Also bear in mind that this list is by no means meant to be exhaustive and these are merely broad categorizations since many of these games contain elements of some or each level of warfare.
Risk, the Civilization series, the Hearts of Iron series.
Most of the 4X genre of games fall into this category since they generally focus on “empire-building” and encompass multiple dimensions of warfare including politics, economics, and society.
The Total War series, Axis & Allies, the Total Annihilation series, the Supreme Commander series, and the Strategic Command series.
These games are broadly focused on large-scale settings as well as on seizing and utilizing resources in achieving military objectives. They also contain political, economic, and societal gameplay mechanics, but which are more heavily applied to warfare in the game.
The Harpoon series, Command: Modern Operations, the Starcraft series, and the Homeworld series.
These were actually the hardest to classify and while all of these games could easily be categorized as both strategic and tactical, I would argue that they fall into the operational category because they involve resourcing mechanics that are largely tangential to the mechanics of controlling large formations of military units. Furthermore, most of the storylines involve the use of politics only insofar as to provide context for the battles that the player finds themselves in. These games usually thrust the player into a situation and force them to use their forces to defeat the enemy. The player almost never chooses the time and place of the battles or the operational areas. The gameplay boils down to the logistics of getting the appropriate units in the appropriate time and space to defeat the enemy.
The Close Combat series, the Full Spectrum Warrior series, the Silent Hunter series, Steel Beasts, Digital Combat Simulator, and the ARMA series.
These are the easiest of the games to classify because they all focus on small or singular units and model specific tactics and/or weapons with a high degree of fidelity.
So there you have it, the basic levels of warfare.
Burns, S. (Eds.). (n.d.). War Gamer’s Handbook: A Guide for Professional War Gamers. Newport, RI: Defense Automated Printing Service.
Hughes, W.P. & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Speller, I. (2014). Understanding Naval Warfare. New York, NY: Routledge.
Van Creveld, M.L. (1985). Command in War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.