Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

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kjn
Posts: 43
Joined: March 4th, 2016, 4:26 pm

Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by kjn »

This is an attempt to bring in some pieces of a theoretical framework for discussing how to play and get better at Wesnoth, based on military theory. It's not so much a set of tactical or strategical advice, but an attempt to place such advice in context. It divides the decisions one makes while playing Wesnoth into three levels: tactical, operational, and strategic, instead of the usual two (tactics and strategy) that I guess most of you are familiar with.

Another consideration of this system is if it helps to analyse the character of different scenarios.

I am mostly focusing on SP play in campaigns here.

Tactics

Tactics is the lowest level of command decisions. It concerns itself with the movement of individual units, order and choice of attacks, and so on. The timeframe for tactical decisions usually is the current turn and the next. Typical examples of tactical decisions are:
  • Using zone of control
  • Setting up a defensive line
  • Setting up and performing a counter-attack
  • Placing and moving support units
  • Deciding on attack order and which hexes to use
Operations

Operations might be a new concept to some, but it has been discussed (sometimes under the name Grand Tactics) since the 19th century. It concerns itself with the movement of groups of units, where to place the primary and secondary efforts, the tempo of the battle, front switching, and so on. Typical examples of operational decisions are:
  • Splitting the army
  • Deciding on the battle tempo (ie when to force, invite, or avoid combat)
  • Flanking movements
  • Force planning for a scenario
One can of course make several of those decisions on a purely tactical basis, but then one is really only playing reactively or opportunistically, and will lack a proper plan for the scenario other than to fight the enemy.

Strategy

Strategy is the highest level, and looks beyond the current scenario and into the next one or ones. Typical examples of strategic decisions are:
  • Deciding which scenarios to play (eg Isle of the Damned or Muff Malal's Peninsula)
  • Building the recall list
  • Deciding on exit conditions
  • XP, gold, or other focus for a given scenario
  • Focusing on an L1/L2 or an L3 army
Put somewhat simplified, tactics is how to play the current turn, operations is how to play the current scenario, and strategy is how to play the next scenario. Poor tactical decisions lead to the loss of units. Poor operational decisions lead to the loss of the scenario. Poor strategical decisions lead to failing the entire campaign, since a scenario becomes unwinnable due to lack of critical resources.

Tactics, operations, and strategy are all rather broad categories, and often interrelate, influence, and shape each other in both directions. Tactics influence operations by identifying areas of advantageous terrain, identifying choke points, or identifying good places for offensive, defensive, and skirmishing/delaying actions. However, just because an area is suitable for a skirmishing action, does not mean that the decision to use that area for such an action is a tactical decision. It is still an operational decision to place units in said area.

How strategy shape operations, and operations shape tactics

oaq's full map strategy in HttT is a great example of how strategic, operational, and tactical thinking interrelate and influence each other.

A strategic goal is decided, ie to gain Simyr in scenario 2 by reaching a specific victory condition. In order to fulfill that goal, an operational plan for Blackwater Port is devised (delaying/avoiding effort with mainly fighters around Konrad in the northeast, and a strike group centered around Delfador and preferably an elvish sharpshooter or sorceress, that perform a flanking movement). The operational (numbers) and tactical (sorceress or sharpshooter) demands of scenario 2 became strategic goals for scenario 1, and led to the development and refinement of a quite detailed operational plan.

The advice for turn 7 in scenario 2 on aggressively moving forward is exactly the kind of situation where a strategic goal forces operational demands that trump normal tactical considerations.

Another good example where operational decisions can come into effect is in "Elves' Last Stand" in Legend of Wesmere. Early in the game, the player must decide on how to handle the western and central fronts: to try to hold both, to hold only the west, or only the center. In effect, the question is if the army should be split into two or three parts, and if two parts, if they should be placed such that they can mutually reinforce each other or not. The force balance between the two or three fronts must also be decided. It is the presence of those choices that I believe makes the scenario feel very much like a major pitched battle, not only the amount of units.
oaq
Posts: 45
Joined: July 21st, 2011, 4:45 pm

Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by oaq »

Good framework. I would like to adopt it.

So, one situation that gives me considerable trouble during SP is this: You've got 7 to 10 units in attack range of the foe and the daylight is momentarily favorable, so you have to kill as many units as possible as fast as possible, even at the cost of some casualties, before the light changes. Maybe you have a non-quick red mage two hexes or so behind your front line; you want to use him against the right target, but (if possible) not leave him too exposed after you do. However, this mage is too far back and too slow to reach all the foes in the area; maybe some trees and hills are in the way, etc.

I too often end up in a bind in which, after some other units of mine have attacked, the mage can no longer find an open hex in range from which to fight a suitable target. As I said, this usually only happens when I've got 7 or more units in the area. As you know, at hard difficulty, one or two failures of this kind can easily tip the whole scenario to defeat.

So, would this question be a tactical or an operational question?

I'd think, tactical, but since we're talking about the interaction of so many units in this case -- 7 to 10 of mine and probably a similar number of the enemy's -- I am not sure.
kjn
Posts: 43
Joined: March 4th, 2016, 4:26 pm

Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by kjn »

I'd definitely call that situation tactical. It's not so much about the number of units as it is about the time horizon and that you are in direct contact with the opponent. (Another way to look at the operational level is the movement of units when they are not in direct contact with or are due to get in contact with the units of the opponents.)

Now, numbers can push a tactical situation into a more operational one. Say that you have a couple of units behind your front line. You can either use them as a reserve or send them on a flanking movement. That is an operational decision, though one where tactical considerations are likely to be quite important (terrain, distances, relative numbers, et c).

One good thing about this framework is that it explained to me why Quick tends to be a very valued trait by many, including me. It is the only trait that is helpful on the operational level, and thus can help in just about every state of the game. A lot of operational advice can be put down to Nathan Bedford Forrest's words: "I got there first with the most men".

(Intelligent, on the other hand, applies to the strategic level, but unlike other traits, it stops being useful after a while, and it only applies at certain points. It is certainly useful in short campaigns, support units, or units can reach L4, but otherwise it fades rather quickly.)
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Inky
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Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by Inky »

Great article!

One of my favorite scenarios is Mal Ravanal's Capital (from the Eastern Invasion) which requires some very precise planning (need to recruit units with the right traits, in the right hexes, and send them in the right direction) in order to get an optimal result.

I am also a huge fan of Neki's commented replays on youtube (MP, but most of the advice applies to SP also), which explain in great detail the kind of precise planning and hex management involved in high level Wesnoth play.

(As for the Quick trait: I love seeing it on 4-5 MP units but it's the last thing I want to see on a 6+ MP unit - they get to the battle faster but they also die a lot faster! My favorite trait, by far, is resilient.)
kjn
Posts: 43
Joined: March 4th, 2016, 4:26 pm

Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by kjn »

Thanks!

Yeah, Quick can vary a lot in its value and uses. But going into that will have to wait for my next long article.
oaq
Posts: 45
Joined: July 21st, 2011, 4:45 pm

Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by oaq »

Inky wrote:(As for the Quick trait: I love seeing it on 4-5 MP units but it's the last thing I want to see on a 6+ MP unit - they get to the battle faster but they also die a lot faster! My favorite trait, by far, is resilient.)
Now that you mention it, I have never been able to decide whether I like quick or resilient better. Whenever my unit brings the one trait or the other to the fight, I appreciate it, but the two traits are useful in different, divergent ways. Maybe this means that the two traits are well balanced against one another. Or maybe resilient really is a bit better: it is indeed a nice trait.

You mention quick on a 6+ MP unit. Does that not help to occupy villages and to attack (assassinate) the enemy keep with a flanking squad? That's what I tend to use it for.

Occasionally, one gets a quick, resilient unit, which is fun; but then you have resilient, quick, in the reverse order, which is perplexing: viewtopic.php?f=4&t=21754.

The more I think about it, the more I am thinking that @kjn's military planning taxonomy will be useful in Wesnoth. I had been using the word strategy fairly indiscriminately, but operations would be the better word for many, intermediate uses, wouldn't it? To have a better word helps to support clear discussion and thought.

@kjn: Does chess have operations? If you happen to know the board game Diplomacy, does Diplomacy have operations? Do any other notable games of which you can think have operations, or is this concept mostly just useful for a game like Battle for Wesnoth?
kjn
Posts: 43
Joined: March 4th, 2016, 4:26 pm

Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by kjn »

@oaq: Since operations is a real-world concept, you can find plenty of information on it on the net. Wikipedia has a decent introduction. And yes, part of the reason why I started to think in these directions is that I've found a lot of computer gamers tossing around the term strategy for all sorts of discussions.

I'd say that chess doesn't have an operational level (or if it has it, it replaces the strategy on the board). Diplomacy I know too little about. Most classical wargames tend to operate on either the tactical, the operational level, or the strategic level, though some explore the intersection between them. The best example of a game with all three levels that I know of is in some 4X games, like the original Master of Orion and Sword of the Stars.

But in the end, this is a classification system, and thus have elements of arbitrariness. If it helps thought, use it; if it doesn't, discard it.
oaq
Posts: 45
Joined: July 21st, 2011, 4:45 pm

Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by oaq »

kjn wrote:Say that you have a couple of units behind your front line. You can either use them as a reserve or send them on a flanking movement.
Lacking a military officer's training, I do not understand the application of the operational reserve very well. In Battle for Wesnoth, the cost of voluntarily holding back an operational reserve is that one forgoes the use of a unit's striking power. That's a pretty heavy cost to pay.

Also, in Battle for Wesnoth, it usually seems not to be too hard to disengage a unit from a strong place on the line and, in a single turn, reengage that unit in a weak place. Thus, Battle for Wesnoth seems to let me keep my reserves constantly in action -- which, I vaguely gather, is not how real military officers use reserves.

During unfavorable daylight, of course, one tries to limit contact with the enemy generally, but I don't know how much this has to do with operational reserves.

I wish that I understood the concept better. My only operational reserve ever tends to consist of whatever units have recently been healing in villages to the rear. It's not like I had been holding these reserves back a-purpose, as a real military officer might do.
Last edited by oaq on May 28th, 2016, 5:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.
kjn
Posts: 43
Joined: March 4th, 2016, 4:26 pm

Re: Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

Post by kjn »

Heh. I think the essay I'm noodling on right now will be of interest, given your questions.

But yes, there are plenty of differences between real-world military operations and Wesnoth, and how one uses and handles reserves is one of them. In many ways, I imagine one should probably also look at pre-mechanised warfare more than current-day military thought.

That said, I believe one should think of reserves in Wesnoth more as tactical reserves than operational ones. The scale is still relatively small.
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