May 24, 2024

Battle Lab ~ Integrating Tactical Intelligence into Board Wargaming

Brant Guillory, 10 December 2018

What is Intelligence? What is Tactical Intelligence?

Intel is critical information needed to make decisions; that information is currently unknown, or known but likely to change. Tactical intelligence is specific to the battlespace in which a commander operates, and is needed to make decisions of a direct military nature, involving the employment of battlefield operating systems to accomplish his mission.

For example, a commander may not know the strength of the enemy’s force at all – a situation common in naval combat. In this case, he is dealing with a “pure” unknown. In another case, he may be familiar with the enemy’s initial strength, but following attrition for maintenance and expected harassment and interdiction (H&I) fires, it can be expected that the enemy will hit the commander’s main defensive belt at something less than full strength, but the exact strength is uncertain.

How does intel work in board wargaming?  How could it work?  Here are a few thoughts.

Another common occurrence in reality, but rare in games (especially historical ones because of the way that scenarios are designed), a commander might have a fairly complete enemy order of battle – and his reconnaissance may even have eyes on the enemy – but he has no idea what the enemy objective is.

In any case, there is information about the enemy that the commander needs. That information is intelligence. It’s often developed through inference, and it’s rarely an exact science. Based on what can be seen, what does that tell us about the enemy’s strength, intentions, and capabilities? Based on what is known, what can be extrapolated?

These are the challenges that commanders face in a real-world intelligence development environment.

Just a note, before I go further. While I have experience working in the tactical intel world for ground maneuver combat units, this article is not intended to be a full explanation of all aspects of tactical intelligence. It is also not intended to be a doctrinal primer on the “official” US Army intelligence process. Although much of the terminology is based on US doctrine, the concepts are more universal.

How can gamers use Intelligence on the battlefield?

Intelligence answers key questions on the battlefield that are needed to make timely and appropriate decisions during the fight. These decisions are made at, or before, “decision points” on the battlefield. These decision points are the points at which one course of action must be chosen out of the available options and there may be multiple decision points. Following are two examples:

  • A simplified offensive example: I need to kill the enemy to accomplish my mission. My tanks are my best killing system, but they move slower than my helicopters. If I want to get my tanks into position, I need to commit them either left or right before they get to the city. In order to decide which way to commit my tanks, I need to know where the enemy is. Therefore, the location of the enemy’s main body of forces becomes a key intelligence requirement, and the highway interchange outside the city becomes my decision point, because I must decide by then which way to commit the tanks.
  • An example in the defense: I have a reserve of several AT weapons. Based on the rate of travel for those AT systems, it will take at least 20 minutes to commit them to reinforce one of my two main defensive positions. Therefore, I need approximately 20 minutes warning in order to ensure they get to the fight in a timely manner. If the enemy’s doctrinal rate of march is 20 kph, then I have to have someone watching the enemy’s movement approximately 7 km forward of my lines, in order to tell me which way the enemy is going. My decision point is no longer based on my movement, but rather on the enemy’s movement.

Typically, intelligence requirements and decision points are based on knowledge of the enemy’s doctrine. If the enemy tends to approach the battle in a certain formation, then uncovering part of that formation allows the intel section to predict where the rest of the enemy forces are. If the enemy tends to guard her flanks with wheeled ATGMs on the high ground, then the presence of wheeled ATGMs on the ridge may be an indicator of where the enemy’s flank is, allowing the intel geeks to template the rest of the enemy force, and narrow the area in which to focus his commander’s main effort.

One technique that has worked well at the battalion level and below (and that we teach at the CPX events at Origins) is to develop at least two different enemy courses of action. Usually, these courses of action revolve around the enemy’s most likely course of action and the most dangerous course of action, as determined by enemy doctrine. A gamer will want there to be some definite differences between those courses of action, because he needs observable cues that clue him into one or the other. This does not mean that he should build artificial differences into the courses of action just to distinguish them. Usually, the “most likely” is straight enemy doctrine; the “most dangerous” course of action is how the enemy would fight the battle with perfect intelligence on your unit.

Once these two sketches have been developed, they are overlaid on top of each other on a map (so that they remain to scale and tied to specific points on the ground). Where the courses of action diverge, the player has his areas of interest, where observing enemy actions can cue the player to enemy intentions. Where the courses of action converge and overlap, the player has projected engagement areas, since it is expected that the enemy will travel through that area regardless of their course of action. This is called “predictive analysis” – using analysis of the enemy’s doctrine to predict the actions on the battlefield. However…

So, how do you portray Intelligence in a wargame?

Gamers are not typically bound by enemy doctrine, unless certain limitations are written into the rules (units cannot move more than X spaces from their commander, etc.). So, how can a gamer ‘template’ an enemy formation when his opponent may not be using that formation, or anything remotely resembling it? How can a gamer “predict” the location of his opponent’s tanks, when he can see the tanks on the map?

One method is to focus on the key actions needed to take to win the game, and the key decision points at which those actions must be triggered. When a gamer’s decisions are relative to his own actions, he doesn’t need to “predict” any enemy actions, but instead look for other indicators that may tip him off to the enemy’s next actions.

For instance, are you headed for the north bridge or the south bridge? That decision will likely be influenced by (a) the number of defenders at each bridge, (b) how fast the enemy can deploy his reinforcements to that bridge, and (c) the point at which your movement factors make it imperative to commit north or south, because it would take too many turns to change your direction.

So, how should a gamer asses how many defenders are at the bridge, and how much firepower his opponent can bring to bear on friendly forces? A gamer needs to get someone in position to find out. In a typical tabletop wargame, the gamer is his own eyes, since he can see the entire map and everyone on it. (Some exceptions: Columbia Games’ ‘block’ games, and SPI’s old Modern Battles II series, among others.)

Map graphics can also be used to designate decision points, and key areas in which a player needs to focus his observations (called NAIs – Named Areas of Interest – by the US Army). Targeting certain areas on the map for special attention can help the gamer to focus his reconnaissance efforts and give him timely and accurate information to aid in his decision-making.

Scenario 1

Scenario 1A
Scenario 1Bscenario1b

US forces have established a hasty defense along the river. They have one infantry battalion and one tank battalion forward of the river, with a reinforcing infantry battalion behind the river, but in range to cover their brethren. Guarding the other bridge to the north is another tank battalion. The reserve consists of a tank battalion and an armored recon squadron.

The Soviet forces approaching the defense are leading with two mechanized infantry battalions, with a recon battalion screening to the north off the roads. The bulk of the force consists of five tank battalions, and an additional understrength mechanized infantry battalion. There are two different ways in which intelligence analysis can be integrated into this scenario.

If both players are aware of each others’ objectives within the game, then the analysis focuses on method, rather than execution. Let’s assume the US objective is to allow no Soviet units across the river, and the Soviet objective is to seize one bridgehead which the rest of the unit can exploit.

The intelligence requirements for each side could be outlined as follows:

  • US #1: Will Soviet forces commit to northern or southern bridgehead?
  • US #2: Will Soviet forces attempt to seize bridgehead with infantry or tank units?
  • Sov #1: Will US forces collapse behind the river and defend from behind the river?
  • Sov #2? Where and when will US forces commit their reserve?

Both of the US intelligence questions affect the commitment of the reserves. If the Soviets move north, the US player can wait until later to commit the reserve, and possibly shuffle some units from the southern defense to reinforce the north. If the Soviet unit commits with infantry units first, then the US player may also be able to delay the commitment of his reserve and fight the Soviet infantry straight-up, saving the reserve to fight with the Soviet tank battalions.

The Soviet intel requirements are designed to tell the player (a) how fast can he move forward, and (b) how quickly he can/should shuffle his tank battalions to the front of the assault.

For this mission, the US player has one primary NAI (NAI 1). The disposition of Soviet forces in this NAI is a good indicator of which way the Soviet player is committing his forces. If the tanks are forward, then the Soviets are likely preparing for the assault, and probably on the southern defense. If the tanks are still back, then the indicator may be which way the infantry are moving. It is possible for the Soviet player to feint with the infantry, and attack in the other direction with the tank battalions. This would be an example of a player ignoring doctrine to accomplish his own mission.

The Soviet player, however, has two NAIs (NAI A & B), each to answer a different intel requirement. The first tells the Soviet player the disposition of the southern defense; the second, the disposition of the reserve.
If the game is played with “hidden” objectives – the players’ missions are unknown to each other – then the NAIs change, too.

The US player needs to know if the Soviet player is even trying to cross the river, or simply seize and hold roads and towns. The Soviet player needs to know if the US player is defending along the river, to planning a spoiling attack to disrupt his movement.

Revised intel requirements:

  • US #1: Will Soviets occupy towns along south/west side of the river? (This would indicate mission to seize roads/towns, since there is no bridgehead over the river there.)
  • US #2: Will Soviets occupy town at NAI 2? (Again, potentially key crossroads, but not useful for crossing the river.)
  • Sov #1: Will US infantry battalion cross the river at the southern bridgehead? (Would indicate a spoiling attack, since it would be easier to defend behind the river.)
  • Sov #2: Will US reserve move to the road at NAI K? (This would indicate a counterattack, since the road would speed movement to a bridgehead, but not to a defensive position.)

Based on the answers to each of the above intel requirements, the players will be better equipped to deal with enemy actions on the battlefield, having identified some likely indicators of enemy actions.

Scenario 2

Scenario 2A


Scenario 2B


as always, click to enlarge the images

In a similar mission to before, US forces have again established a hasty defense along the river. They have two infantry battalions and one tank battalion along of the river. The reinforcing brigade contains two tank battalions and an armored recon squadron.

The attacking Soviet forces are leading with a tank battalion, followed by a mechanized infantry battalion, and an understrength mechanized infantry battalions. The main body is four tank battalions, and two mechanized infantry battalions.

Again, we can examine the scenario options with both known and unknown enemy objectives.

Assuming both players know each other’s objectives, the US player would know that the Soviet player is supposed to seize the town around the bridge where his northern infantry battalion is based. The Soviet player knows that the US player wants to deny him the ability to cross the river anywhere.

The intelligence requirements for each side could be outlined as follows:

  • US #1: Will Soviet forces attempt to flank the position by crossing the river early?
  • US #2: Will Soviet forces use tank battalions to engage by fire to pin units along the river, thus limiting their mobility?
  • Sov #1: Will US forces commit the reserve to reinforce the defense, or conduct a counterattack?
  • Sov #2: Will US forces attempt to deny use of northernmost river crossings?

For this mission, the US player has two NAIs (NAI 6 & 7). Activity in NAI 6 would likely indicate a Soviet river crossing north of the main defensive belt; this NAI must be placed back from the river to give the US player time to react to the Soviet action. If this NAI is moved to the west, it would be a better indicator of Soviet intentions, but it would come too late for the US player to react to it. Activity by Soviet tank battalions in NAI 7 would indicate their deployment to support the attack with suppressive fires.

The Soviet player is looking for the presence any units in either NAI (P or Q) that would indicate which way the US player is intending to deploy.

With hidden objectives, the intel main change. In this operation, the US mission is destroy at least 5 Soviet battalions, cutting their strength in half. The Soviet mission is seize the road that runs north-south, parallel to the river on the west side.

  • US #1: Where will the Soviets cross the river? (Creates a bottleneck where Soviet units can be engaged.)
  • US #2: Will Soviets lead with tanks or mechanized infantry? (Tells US player which units to move forward to fight.)
  • Sov #1: Will US battalions defend in front or behind the river? (Soviet player may be able to flank the US by seizing one bridgehead and moving across the river through that one.)
  • Sov #2: Will US reserve move to the road at NAI V or W? (Would indicate direction of deployment of reserves.)

Now, assuming if we are going to allow command posts to prepare fragmentary orders (FRAGOs) to have read in case certain conditions are met, then we would allow each side 1-2 FRAGOs that could be executed in the event of certain action.

US FRAGO: If 2 battalions are in NAI 6 in the same turn, trigger FRAGO that moves the reserve due north by their full movement factor.

SOV FRAGO: If any units pass through NAI Q moving North, trigger FRAGO that moves 2 tank battalions and 1 mechanized infantry battalion toward southernmost US defensive position by full movement factor.

Thus, if the Soviet commander commits his forces toward the northern crossing points, the American commander is (a) planning for the possibility by preparing and briefing his units, and (b) establishing a point on the ground where the presence of enemy units would likely indicate what course of action the opponent is choosing. If the Soviets roll through NAI 6, then the Americans would gain a bonus action at the end of the turn, allowing them to move their units above and beyond what was already done during the turn.


Tracking the progress of intelligence collection & analysis

Key enemy information should trigger certain actions by the player’s units. One way to track this is on a matrix that can be developed based on the mission and the terrain. If the player knows the enemy’s objective, then his analysis will focus on countering the enemy’s method of achieving his mission, instead of attempting to discover what the mission is.


Download the intel worksheet in PDF format here


House rules to reward the proper use of Intelligence?

The focus on intelligence is not simply discovering what an opponent is “up to.” It has to be focused toward the decisions needed to succeed in the mission. Does it matter if an opponent is leading with two tank platoons, or one tank platoon and one infantry platoon? Maybe. If the mission is to find and destroy the bridge outside of town, it may not matter at all how the opponent deploys her formation.

Building a full mission profile, with key decision points, necessary information to make the decisions, and likely locations of that information, can be a cumbersome ‘prebattle’ task. However, if the goal is to more accurately portray the use of intelligence assets on the battlefield in order to discover critical information necessary to make key decisions, then that work is both relevant and essential to the task at hand.

Potential ways to reward the proper use of intelligence in a wargame include:

  1. Bonus actions for predictive analysis. This process is introduced in LTC(R) Neil Garra’s Soldier Chess. Based on the gamer’s analysis (or knowledge) of the enemy’s composition, objective, and timeline (and doctrine, if appropriate), the gamer can designate a time and place that he expects to see a certain unit, or type of units. If that unit appears in that place, at that time, his headquarters has a FRAGO prepared and ready to go, giving him a bonus action. If that’s the case, their reaction times would be greatly reduced, and might even include some bonus action outside the normal cycle of the game-turn. The idea is simple: the gamer who can correctly predict the actions of an enemy and is “thinking ahead” should be rewarded over the gamer who is merely assuming that all units on the board are only reacting to the actions of the enemy.
  2. Bonus to victory points. If the game is decided with a point-scored mechanism, then correctly developing and answering information requirements could simply provide additional victory points without any changes in the actions of the units on the map.
  3. Enhancing unit capabilities. If artillery is normally delayed a turn while the guns adjust from the previous fire mission, then perhaps alerting the artillery to what the player expects the enemy to do allows them to register some targets ahead of the mission. This allows the artillery to react faster if the enemy actually rolls under one of those targets, and fire this turn instead of next turn.

Other ways to integrate intel into gameplay may involve a write-and-reveal, or card-based mechanism that allows a gamer to try and predict his opponent’s next move(s). If the gamer correctly predicts (not guesses) what his opponent’s next action(s) are, then he is better able/prepared to counter them.

Depending on the particulars of the game being played, there are many ways that intelligence can be rewarded within the game.

Thanks for reading!  We’d love to have your feedback either in the comment area below, or in our discussion forum.  You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube

Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

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