31 May 2011

Battle Lab: Logistics

Originally published in Battles Magazine #1, and republished by The Wargamer. This was due to run yesterday - and most of the reprints will hit on Mondays - but we pushed this one b/c of Memorial Day.


Here’s a logic puzzle for you.

You have 4 snakes that have to get through a maze. They each have a destination, but there are only 3 start points and only 3 endpoints. Oh, and the routes through the maze cross in several places, which means you have to sequence your snakes through the maze. And by the way, there is a certain sequence the snakes need to depart and arrive.

Does your head hurt yet? What if we started putting some obstacles in the maze? How about if the snakes stop off for a bite to eat? What if we start including snakes going the other direction, too? Some passageways are too small for some snakes, do you route them through those pathways to free up space for other snakes even if the smaller ones now take longer to get where they’re going?

Welcome to the world of military logistics planning. As you can see, it’s a very intricate dance, and – quite honestly – a lousy game. There’s a limited amount of “oogah oogah grunt grunt” appeal to convoy route planning and sequencing, especially when compared against main battle tanks killing targets at 3500m, and infantry bayonet charges into the teeth of the enemy line.

more after the jump! (click the article header for the full article)

There’s a famous and oft-repeated saying that “amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics,” but there’s a good reason for that, and it’s the other oft-repeated saying that “an army travels on its stomach.” In short, tactics are irrelevant without the supplies to execute them. The perfect armored envelopment fails for want of a full tank of gas. The dogged defense crumbles without ammunition. Soldiers evacuated to the rear for medical treatment return to the front; soldiers dying on the front lines offer little assistance to their comrades.

So how can someone model the all-important logistical nightmare in a combat game, without bogging the game down into a nightmare of herding snakes through mazes?

First, and easiest, is to ignore it. Assume you have a competent logistics officer on your staff who has the capability to formulate and execute a solid plan for supporting your units as they fight their battles. While this is certainly easiest to execute as a game designer, it may lack an appropriate emphasis for the player. There are some specific logistical issues that commanders will want to be briefed on; I once had a commander who wanted to know the status of any deadline repair part (one that makes the vehicle unusable) whose order request was over a week old. In his mind, if it took more than a week to get a part needed to return a vehicle to action, then the logistics system was not working, and he needed to emphasize that to his commander, to get it resolved. Although our commander left the logistics people alone to do their jobs, he had an itch and we had to scratch it. Ignoring all logistics in a game fails to account for such commanders.

A second method for modeling logistics in a game is similar to the one employed in the OCS series of games from Multi-Man Publishing and The Gamers. Supplies are managed as a numerical factor, but need not be transported around the battlefield. Similar to the option above, this method of dealing with logistics assumes a competent logistics officer capable of moving supplies around the battlefield. But it differs in that it addresses the real-world limitation that commanders do not have unlimited supplies at their disposal, and some actions require greater logistics commitments than others, and that these must be prioritized based on support. Commanders are required to allocate supplies as represented by some part of a turn-by-turn total, but are not required to micromanage their transportation.

A third method takes a different tack on the commander’s/player’s attention to logistics, and that is the idea of “supply lines.” This model works on the assumption that players have a sufficient level of supplies to maintain their operations, so long as they have an open channel to those supplies. Some games work on a variation of this theme and set stacking limits (often based on terrain) in conjunction with maintaining lines of supply. Using this model, commanders do not juggle the priorities of supply allocation. Instead, they are forced to commit some level of combat power toward maintaining an open route to their logistical base, usually off-map. S&T’s Cold War Battles series models this fairly well. In addition to maintaining open supply routes, units are limited in their stacking in certain terrain, which is indicative of the difficulty of moving supplies through that type of terrain.

None of these methods involves any detailed planning of logistics. None of them involve choreographing in- and out-bound convoys, hauling ammunition forward and casualties back. There are rarely medical units in any of these games that are used to turn around wounded soldiers and return them to their units, or maintenance areas that repair damaged vehicles to return them to the fight. And while a mechanized battalion typically carries enough supplies for approximately 8 hours of continuous operations, we seldom limit them to a certain number of turns within the game, nor do we model the actual link-up with their brigade-level assets to reload the trucks or refuel the tankers before turning back around during the battle. Oh, and none of this addresses having the right supplies going forward, to ensure that the trucks with the machine-gun ammunition get to the infantry, while the trucks with the tank ammo make it to the panzers.

Lest we wrap ourselves too tightly around the ‘realism’ axle, however, let us return to one simple fact: we’re playing games. And games are intended to be fun. As a 10-year practitioner of tactical-level logistics, let me assure you that they are not fun. Interesting? Yes. Challenging? Absolutely. Fun? Only in a morbid, oddball, I-collect-slide-rules-and-use-more-than-one-at-the-same-time-for-the-heck-of-it way.

Back to our snake example... it can be an interesting mind-puzzle for someone who’s never done this. But unless this is really your cup of tea, it’s not the sort of puzzle you’re likely to enjoy over and over and over. It is, however, the exact sort of puzzle that a division movement officer, or a brigade logistics planner would have to tackle, and probably several times every week in sustained combat.

By: Brant

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