Tactical Decision Games via Combat Commander: Europe

Tactical Decision Games (TDGs, also known as Sandbox Exercises, Tactical Vignettes and a myriad of other names) are an important part of professional military education. Military professionals at all levels have to constantly practice decision making in tactical situations in order to sharpen their judgment and also widen their horizon. USMC Major John F. Schmitt writes in his paper How We Decide on the importance of TDGs as leader development tools and explores the reasons why they are an important part of professional military education. Gen. (ret.) James Mattis, former Commandant of the USMC and Secretary of Defense, has often stated how a study of history has helped him make decisions and how it contributed to his success in Desert Storm. TDGs go a step further and put the student in the shoes of the commander, forcing him to face the very same dilemmas that others faced.

However, the way that TDGs are conducted leaves room for improvement. Usually, a situation is introduced, participants come up with plans, and then those plans are discussed. This is a highly subjective process that often leads to discussion without resolution of the tactical situation. True, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and we cannot talk in absolutes when it comes to tactical situations. Still, some plans lead to rather unsatisfactory results, and it is important to catch the habits and tendencies that lead to such plans before they lead to trouble down the line.

I have written about the use of wargames as learning tools and listed a few wargames that lend themselves very well as learning tools in my Wargames and Learning series. In this post, I will introduce the tabletop wargame Combat Commander: Europe (CC:E) as a great supplement for TDGs and show one way of using it.

Important ingredients in the proper conduct of a TDG via CC:E are:

  1. Scenario Setup
  2. Tactical Instruction
  3. Planning Phase
  4. Before Action Discussion (Optional)
  5. Simulation via CC:E
  6. After Action Report

We will take a closer look at each one.

Scenario Setup

The scenario setup is maybe the most important step in the proper conduct of a TDG. The central challenge of the scenario setup is the question: What are the lessons to be learned and how can they best be translated into a tactical scenario?

It is important to keep the scenario realistic and not go overboard, as many leaders tend to design scenarios that are way too challenging for the participants, lack an inner sense of logic, or have other undesirable parts. I can’t emphasise this enough: the scenario has to make sense. For example, participants will wonder why a signals squad suddenly has snipers, or why an untrained militia unit has access to modern tanks. And the learning experience will be hampered if the answers don’t make sense.

A unique challenge with CC:E is that it is a World War 2 game. Therefore the scenarios will have to be „translated“ into CC:E to be playable, and the fact that this has to be done has to be kept in mind when designing the scenario. However, this is not too hard to do, as a machine gun team is a machine gun team and an infantry squad stays an infantry squad. As the game itself is balanced, there shouldn’t be many issues. However, a major drawback of CC:E is the fact that it only simulates infantry action. Apparently, the scale is so small that tanks or other vehicles would throw off the gaming balance. This does limit the usability of CC:E to a certain degree.

Tactical Instruction

This is where participants are introduced to the scenario and the tactical situation. This can be done, as it traditionally is, with the help of a real sandbox or with the final CC:E setup. Optimally, both a sandbox and CC:E is used at this phase.

Planning Phase

Participants make their decisions and plans during this phase. It is important to set a time limit and encourage participants to make decisions with their gut, as they won’t have time to go through a military decision-making process in a real-life tactical situation.

Before Action Discussion (Optional)

This is an optional element. Instructors can discuss the plans with participants before playing it out with CC:E. This gives instructors the opportunity to highlight good and critical parts of plans and showcase the different ways participants used to solve the tactical problem at hand. However, the Before Action Discussion can also be omitted in order to surprise the participants.

Simulation via CC:E

Usually, during TDG and decision-making exercises, plans are discussed to great length.  This process is highly subjective and dependent on the instructor, oftentimes leaving participants frustrated. Participants might think that their plan or idea is good, but the instructor just doesn’t get it. This is highly counterproductive because in such a situation no learning occurs. The participants have to test it out and really experience the results of their decisions to understand the implications. Hearing about the drawbacks of their plan is by far not as good as executing it and seeing first-hand what the results are.

CC: E comes with a myriad of units, everything that infantrymen could desire is included. The emphasis on small-unit action, squads, fireteams, and weapon’s teams makes it the perfect system for simulating infantry action. A great part of CC: E gameplay is the fact that certain aspects of the game are card driven and add a layer of chaos. Radios jam, orders get confused, and many more things happen on the battlefield. The card-driven nature of CC: E forces participants to take into account the chaos that accompanies tactical action and helps them understand that things never go perfectly in battle.

After Action Report (AAR)

What worked? What didn’t work? Why? What were good ideas that proved to be wrong? What were bad sounding ideas that proved to be correct?

It is important participants and instructors discuss the lessons learned from the simulation via CC: E in order to get the most out of the TDG. AARs are the best tools to do that. They are used in militaries worldwide in order to capture and emphasise the lessons learned.

What are your thoughts on using wargames to enhance sandbox exercises? Leave a comment below!

Further Reading:

  • How We Decide, Maj. John F. Schmitt USMCR – A paper on the importance of teaching quick decision making for company grade leaders
  • Simulating War, Philip Sabin – A thorough analysis of wargaming and how it can be used to teach
  • Scouts in Contact, US Army National Training Center – A collection of scenarios that can be used as the basis of sandbox exercises
  • Battle Drill – A blog dedicated to teaching tactical concepts to enhance player experience for the computer game Combat Mission

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