Thursday, January 12, 2006

Strategy vs. Tactics 1

Given how popular combat is in MMORPGs, there’s a lot of discussion about how to implement it. As I read many discussions of what people want, I'm noticing a lot of players -- and even some developers -- using the terms "strategy" and "tactics" interchangeably, as if they're the same thing. But they aren't -- they're two very different concepts.

I believe that the combat team leader who knows and appreciates the differences between strategy and tactics is going to outperform the one who doesn't. With that in mind, I offer the following notes.

(I should point out here that while I’ve studied this stuff pretty intensively as a historian and student of game design, I never served in any branch of any military. If that kills the value for you of anything I might say on the subject, feel free to skip to something else that looks more interesting.)

Modern military doctrine generally recognizes four levels of control in military action:

  • Tactics
  • Operations
  • Strategy
  • Grand Strategy
Tactics are the hands-on, environmentally determined actions taken to win battles. To put it another way: tactics are techniques. Examples of tactical action include: how to set and spring an ambush; how to detect an ambush; how to move quietly through hostile territory; how to probe enemy positions to gain intel; how to dig a fighting position; how to properly place observation, listening and command posts; how to place mines for maximum effectiveness; how to capture a bridge intact; how to rig charges to blow a bridge; how to cross a river without a bridge; how to place, set up, fortify, and guard an encampment; and so on.

Note that all of the examples given start with the word "how" -- that's not accidental. Tactics are all about "how," as opposed to "what" or "where" or "why," which are properly determined by the next military levels up. Every MMORPG I know of is almost exclusively concerned with tactics. So the first thing the good squad leader does when a new MMORPG comes out is explore -- go find out what the environment is like in lots of places, and play around to try to identify ways in which players can interact with each other and with the environment. That's how you learn what the physical rules are that govern the environment. This battlespace intelligence will cue the smart squad leader to the tactics that will make him successful.

The Operations level is the level concerned with specifying battlefield objectives -- the "what," as in "what bridge should we take?" "what hills, if we take them, could block the enemy's resupply lines in this area?" "what training do we need to be prepared to carry out our mission?" Operations is the "middle-management" of the military, translating the strategic goals enunciated by general staff officers into plans for action, and passing intel (friendly and enemy) back up the chain of command for decision-making. Ops bosses look at enemy positions and strengths in their area, and at the assets and capabilities of the units under their command, then based on these myriad factors devise operational plans for pitting strength against weakness to be able to advance constantly from victory to victory. In most MMORPGs, the only operations-level activity comes from raid leaders who keep their units together over multiple missions, and who thus keep track of player attributes and skills, types of weapons and amounts of ammunition, and who possibly coordinate with other raid leaders to achieve victory across an entire battlefield.

Then, and only then, comes "strategy." If tactics are how you win a battle, strategy is how you win a war. Successful strategic-level thinking is concerned with the logistical movement of entire armies and materiel to achieve total military dominance. If you've read Sun Tzu's The Art of War, you know that this general was not nearly so concerned with how to win any particular battle as he was with demonstrating such force of arms as to win entire wars (even before they begin if possible). Strategy, as Sun Tzu articulated, is the formulation of specific but broad-scale and long-lasting military goals. When General Norman Schwarzkopf was given his orders (from the "grand strategy" level of commander-in-chief and joint staffs chairman) to "liberate Kuwait," he didn't think about tactics or operations: he looked at the national maps; he looked at the intel on enemy strengths and locations; he looked at the troops and materiel gathered during Desert Shield; he listened to the ideas of his Central Command staff officers; and then he thought. The strategy he devised is what we now call the "Hail Mary Strategy" that moved entire coalition armies around to the west and then north of Basra to cut off the line of retreat for the Iraqi army in Kuwait, while feinting to distract enemy attention with a fake landing of Marines to the east of Kuwait City. This wasn't a tactic for winning a battle, or a plan for controlling an area, nor was it even a strategy for hammering a foe into dust. It was a strategy right out of Sun Tzu for demoralizing an entire enemy army to the point that it surrendered en masse -- which is exactly what happened. In Star Wars terms, Grand Moff Tarkin was acting strategically when he used the major power at his command (the Death Star) to destroy Alderaan. This wasn't to win any battle; it was to shatter the will of the Rebellion to fight, and thus to win the entire war. That's strategy.

Finally, the highest level of military control is the "grand strategy" level, where military force is combined with political force to achieve a restructuring of power among nations or even civilizations, creating balance of power effects which may last for centuries. The grand strategy of Rome two millenia ago was to expand by the dual use of military force to conquer new territories and peoples, and the political inducement of offering Roman citizenship to conquered peoples to eliminate rebellion before it even started. We today see mostly the fall of Rome after it declined into Empire, but their grand strategy served them very effectively for hundreds of years. Similarly, the grand strategy in Star Wars is devised and ordered by the Emperor Palpatine. It was Palpatine who encouraged the predations of the Trade Federation that led to his selection as Chancellor; it was Palpatine who directed Count Dooku to lead hundreds of star systems to secede from the Republic, thus permitting Palpatine to create the clone army that would serve him as he converted the Republic into an Empire. Pitting Senator against Senator, and clone army against battledroids, Palpatine skillfully executed a grand strategy of combined political manipulation and military force that allowed him to become the all-powerful Emperor.

Until the grand strategy of the light side of the Force proved stronger.


Personally, I'd be pleasantly astonished if there were any in-game mechanics to support operations-level activity. As far as being able (as a player) to make strategic-level decisions goes... well, they'd probably find me days later, an emaciated wreck, my hands still on the keyboard and a grin on my face. :)

Until then, it will reduce confusion to bear in mind that virtually all combat activity is current MMORPGs is tactical, not strategic.

Here are some useful references on this subject:

Wikipedia entry on Strategy
Strategy defined
Books on strategy

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