May 21, 2024

Battle Lab ~ (Counter)Recon and the Intel Fight

Brant Guillory, 13 April 2023

Reconnaissance is a central tool in every commander’s toolbox, and capable of dramatically swinging the outcomes of battles. While there are voluminous historical anecdotes on reconnaissance on the battlefield, one data-driven analysis has stuck with me for the past 20+ years.

While training at the US Army’s National Training Center in Ft Irwin, CA, I was in an after-action review following a training battle. It was one in which our reconnaissance had not been poor, but the enemy’s had been excellent. It was a cross-tabulation of the following categories: “quality of reconnaissance” rated as low-high, with “outcome of battle” rated as win-draw-loss. There was one chart for the US forces who come to train, and another for the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) who serve as the enemy for these training battles at Ft Irwin.

On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
This one originally appeared in BATTLES! Magazine #2

The evaluators wanted to show how quality reconnaissance (high) contributed to battle success (win). The US forces rarely had high-quality reconnaissance, but when they did, they split almost 50-50 between “draw” and “win” as an outcome. What struck me the most, however, was the OPFOR. It was not their high-quality reconnaissance that jumped out, either. When the OPFOR had low-quality reconnaissance, they lost. No draws, no wins. They lost, every time. The lesson I took from that? Defeat the enemy reconnaissance, and you’re in pretty good shape. After all, it’s much easier to beat a blind man in a fistfight than one who knows where you are.

Reconnaissance on the tabletop, however, is much more challenging, for several reasons.

First, so much of the information is available right in plain sight. Even if we don’t know the exact values of a unit, we can at least see that a unit exists in a certain place. Decoy units (such as those in Ted Racier’s The First World War) are rare in most wargames.

Second, we often have the advantage of historical hindsight and analysis, which can tell us what units were present at the battle, and which units are wholly unavailable (not often known at the time of the battle). We are also granted some inkling of their likely performance (usually based on historical outcome), and rules tailored to enable, if not replicate, the historical outcomes of the games.

For additional Battle Lab columns on Recon & Intel see
Integrating Tactical Intelligence into Board Wargaming
Deep Dive on COA Development

Third, we are granted omniscience with regards to communications between units. Radios never fail and static never interrupts a critical part of the message. Runners never get lost, pigeons aren’t shot down, semaphore flags aren’t obscured by battlefield smoke, and everyone speaks the same language. In reality, a 4-tank platoon that is seen by three different assets and reported in slightly different locations is now being tracked in a command post as a tank company because there is no unified set of eyes deconflicting the reports.

Finally, reconnaissance enables analysis of the enemy formation and disposition, which can offer significant insight into the enemy’s likely course of action. That analysis depends on knowledge of enemy doctrine to piece the puzzle together, so that as one piece is revealed other pieces can be inferred. If light cavalry is spotted on the high ground, for instance, it may not be a definite identification of the enemy’s flank (often screened by a fast-moving force to identify and disengage). However, it may be a very good indicator of where the enemy’s main body isn’t (why lead with your light cavalry instead of the heavy cavalry?). This analytical capability, however, goes out the window when the opponent is not bound by enemy doctrine or formation, as many wargames are not.

How then, to best incorporate reconnaissance units into tabletop wargaming? There are a few considerations, which can mitigate some of the concerns noted above.

Although the enemy’s entire force is on the map, reconnaissance units can be rewarded for performing missions similar to those that would actually exist on the battlefield, such as rooting out the locations of specific enemy units, headquarters, critical assets, or key terrain. This idea has been used in BayonetGames’ Warfighter series of games, in which we specifically designed victory points to reward recon units who were able to gain a line of sight to key enemy units (usually the enemy command group). This provides an incentive for the player to keep recon units alive and moving, and probing the enemy.

Communication between recon assets and other units can also be incorporated into game rules through a variety of mechanisms, many of which have appeared in games and house rules for years. First, inherent delays can be built into actions based on reconnaissance reports. Artillery does not fire on the same turn, unless they are on the same radio net as the scouts (house-ruled in many PanzerBlitz/Panzer Leader games). Confusion on the battlefield can limit the commander’s choices to a few known actions (Combat Commander). Units may be limited in activation until enemy forces are spotted and their dispositions known.

When tactically proficient usage of reconnaissance assets is rewarded with game effects, then the counter-reconnaissance battle takes on a new priority. No longer are recon units simply treated as faster, lighter combat forces, and units tasked with their elimination are now much more important, as they are not simply trying to pin down a battlefield annoyance, but actively trying to deny the enemy knowledge of their own units. Thinking back to the example above – quality reconnaissance often enables battlefield success, but lack of reconnaissance can often portend doom.

rsplan34 80
sample R&S plan from the older FM 34-80


More than anything, though, reconnaissance units in wargaming should not be what they’ve often become – fast and light combat annoyances on the flanks (in most games between the Thirty Years’ War and American Civil War) or fast and heavy combat annoyances all over the map (most games from WWII to the present). These behaviors to not adequately represent the ways in which the units were actually used on the battlefield.

Examples of this problem abound in many modern (post-Vietnam) games, especially NATO-WarPact games in Europe. At the scale where most formations are battalions or regiments, such as SPIs Modern Battles quads, the reconnaissance squadrons are represented at battalion size as well. Taken purely as an assessment of the equipment and personnel they brought to the fight, they are, in fact, upgunned formations compared to their brethren. Where a typical US Army heavy brigade with 2 line battalions and an artillery battalion would bring approximately 44 tanks, 44 personnel carriers, and 18 tubes of artillery to the fight, a cavalry regiment shows up with 42 tanks and 40 reconnaissance vehicles, plus 24 tubes of artillery. Sounds similar, no? The difference is in the area they were tasked to cover, in which a cavalry regiment screening a corps would be required to cover upwards of 100km, where a typical heavy brigade would rarely have more than a 10-15km frontage.

SPI fixed this problem in their early Fifth Corps-series games from SPI, in which the cavalry units were broken down all the way into individual company/troop/battery counters, which allowed them to deploy across a much more realistic amount of space. Rather than a heavily-armed juggernaut crammed into an unrealistically-small space, the Fifth Corps series allowed recon units to act independently of their parent headquarters, to much greater doctrinal effect.

The US Army 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment appears in both SPI’s Würzburg (Modern Battles series) and Hof Gap (Fifth Corps series) but in different counter configurations


Reconnaissance units on the battlefield are a tough nut to crack. The information traditionally granted by good reconnaissance is usually available as soon as the shrinkwrap is off the box. The challenge then, is to find appropriate ways to use them in gameplay that reward solid execution in an approximation of their actual missions while not overly-constraining the players with doctrinal straightjackets or excessive administrative details. The designer that can balance these challenges will have walked a very fine line, but one with rewarding results in translating the real world to the tabletop.


Thank you for visiting The Armchair Dragoons as we delve into our personal archives and bring back some previous articles about games you might still want to check out.
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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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5 thoughts on “Battle Lab ~ (Counter)Recon and the Intel Fight

  1. The portrayal of recce units in the Modern Battles quads is just one of the many problems of the system (which ultimately is derived from Napoleon at Waterloo!).
    But we digress.
    And the games are still perennial favourites.

    The Central Front system needed one more tweak from Fifth Corps, to reduce those cav squadrons from 5 Friction Points to 3… done in standard rules to BAOR I think.
    Now they work as screening forces but aren’t as survivable as they started.
    But the Central Front system is essentially a cut-down NATO Division Commander.
    And _that_ is the way to play these games… double-blind with a controller, and due regard for intelligence and recce assets and procedures.
    I’ve seen this done a time or two at ConsimWorld Expo.
    But that’s all; players never have the time patience or arrangements for anything like this.
    Even lesser mechanics like flooding the map with decoys get short shrift.

    Players with time and a taste for variety could try something like a “nested” game for different phases of a battle: first a game of screens and probes by both sides, the winner of that battle has an advantage in the main engagement that follows – anything and everything from better placement of units to more knowledge of the enemy to knowing that terrain features won’t move or change on you.
    This is something that has appeared in some miniatures campaigns.

    1. Concur. I’d think that the unknown could be replicated more easily in tabletop with generic units, some of which are real, and some are dummy units. Be tough with a large number of units, but workable on small scales.

  2. One thing I’ve done in WW2 and ACW miniatures games is to sow the table with markers. Once the marker is reached, I roll a d20 and consult a table to determine what is revealed. It might be nothing. Or it could be terrain that was not obvious (soft ground, a rise, an unmarked trail, a road that peters out), wire, mines, an enemy ambush. It really depends on the scenario. The catch is that scouts and recon units reveal the marker, but don’t trigger the effect. In other words, they see the ambush, mines, bog first. Any other unit rolls for the effect, if any. Yes, there can be an element of wack-a-mole if/when scouts race from marker to marker. On the other hand, it gives them something vaguely historical to do, and is within the narrative (how many ACW March on a road that turns into a game trail?). The rules overhead is low to nonexistent, and there’s no reason this couldn’t be used on paper maps. It also beats my early days of SPI games where we raced recon units out to hold objectives.

  3. I was impressed with reading the Battalion Combat Series (BCS) rules from MMP. Cavalry/recon units have two unique abilities in that system. One is screening, which can add to the enemy’s movement costs in travel mode. The other relies on the system’s use of Objective markers: a formation (division or brigade-equivalent, usually) might only receive 1 or 2 markers per turn (day), which delineate where on the map that formation may engage in serious combat. A recon unit may attempt to add 1 more objective marker. I read that as using reconnaissance assets to allow a commander to develop his picture of the battlefield, and extend his operations deeper (or wider) than he might normally.

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