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Battle Lab: Headquarters in Wargames

Originally published in Battles! Magazine, here’s a look at HQ units on your tabletop ~

Brant Guillory, 3 May 2017

How are headquarters units implemented in wargames, and what functions do they serve? As wargamers, most of us have enough appreciation of history to understand the value of a headquarters in combat and its ability dramatically affect a battle as it unfolds. There are a variety of ways in which headquarters units can be portrayed on the tabletop.

But first, let’s look at what they do in real life (as always, “the disclaimer”: the doctrine being discussed is American; it’s what I know).

According to US doctrine, there are 6 functions for command posts:

  1. Receive information
  2. Distribute information
  3. Analyze information
  4. Submit recommendations to the commander
  5. Integrate resources
  6. Synchronize resources


Now, in most tabletop wargames, the first three, which all feed into the fourth, are all pretty much handled by the player looking at the gameboard, checking out the pieces, and making his decisions. In many games, the player also executes five and six.


Players are able to receive information simply by looking at the map. The information typically received at a headquarters – removed from the battlefield by space and communicated with only by radio – is readily available for the player to examine. Units are where they ‘say’ they are, and their current status and capability are readily understood. Receiving information about the overall disposition of the battle is, all things considered, not that difficult.


Similarly, the distribution of information is rather instantaneous. If the player makes a decision to turn the entire front to the left, there’s no garbled radio transmission or inattentive subordinate unit to thwart the plans. Once a unit transitions from offense to defense, the implementation of new orders does not require the distribution of written FRAGOs, new map graphics, or command guidance.


Players make similar decisions and adjustments to actual headquarters, just without the 10 people gathered around the map or the now-inevitable PowerPoint presentation.

The analysis of information is handled by the player. In all fairness, however, this analysis is not terribly different from that conducted by an actual headquarters. Current situations are still analyzed against the plan, and adjustments made to ensure the implementation of the plan toward the overall success of the mission. This analysis looks at the intelligence picture, the current status of friendly units, the current logistical situation, and any other relevant considerations. Players make similar decisions and adjustments to actual headquarters, just without the 10 people gathered around the map or the now-inevitable PowerPoint presentation.

It is also unlikely that players will create any form of chart or graphic representation of the information being processed in a headquarters. In a real command post, these charts serve to maintain a continuity of information between a variety of people working in the command post. These people will work on shifts, in multiple team configurations, with little or no sleep, under very stressful conditions. Graphic representations of information can quickly and accurately pass information between people in a command post. For a player to pass information around his own head, however, doesn’t require this level of detail in tracking, analysis, product generation, or constant updating.


Similarly, submitting recommendations to the commander in the context of a boardgame is rather irrelevant. On a battlefield, the command post is frequently removed from the action for its own safety. The commander, however, is not. He’s up front in the thick of the action, helping direct the battle. Recommendations on what to change, how, and when, in order to fight through the mission are generated by the staff at the headquarters and passed on to the commander forward in the battle.


The integration and synchronization of resources, however, can actually be implemented on tabletop battlefield with representative units.

Integrating resources can be represented in several ways. Headquarters units can allow for the coordination of logistics, maintaining supply lines, enabling a higher rate of flow for supplies, or a more efficient distribution of supplies (whether represented by specific types of supplies, or some other logistical metric). Headquarters units might also be used to represent the integration of resources in replacement and repair of units, allowing units to regain lost combat power under the supervision of a headquarters unit. Finally, there is the ability for a headquarters unit to integrate resources in the form of entire units changing locations on the battlefield. Headquarters units can integrate the new resource of an entire unit being assimilated into a task organization.

These effects can manifest in a variety of ways within the context of a boardgame. The presence (or absence) of a headquarters unit can affect the flow of supplies to units. It can allow for the repair of damaged units, or a point at which replacement units enter the game. Finally, a chain of command can be altered based on how the units are assigned to their specific headquarters.

Synchronizing resources on the battlefield can also be accomplished by headquarters units on a tabletop. Synchronization typically involves arrangement of units on the battlefield such that they mutually support each other to maximum effect at the appropriate time and place in the battle. At the tactical level, it can involve ensuring that an overwatch platoon lifts and shifts their suppressive fires at the last possible moment before the assault platoon sweeps the objective. At the operational level, it can the timing of the artillery barrage in advance of the deliberate attack against a prepared defense, with a flexible reserve to poised to exploit any weak point in the line. In a game covering an entire theater, the synchronization of resources may involve other services, such as an aerial campaign, naval bombardments or interdictions, amphibious assaults, or civil-military interactions.

How are these effects brought into play? Perhaps the presence of a company commander can allow platoons to combine their attack values, even when coming from different hexes. At the operational level, artillery might get added into an attack, rather than being resolved as its own separate attack, or a reserve unit is granted a movement bonus if the headquarters is in position to release it at the appropriate time in the battle. And at the theater/strategic level, a headquarters unit might increase the lethality of an airstrike, or grant additional strikes based on their ability to control the aircraft.


As with many real-world combat command situations, the tabletop equivalent is functionally very different. Where headquarters and command posts are a constant-motion blur of decision-making, situation updates, plan changes, and information shared among a variety of people, each with their own area of expertise. Wargamers juggle all of these rolls in their won heads, playing many roles in the span of a turn as they visualize the battlefield and mentally compare it to their original plan before deciding what to change, and how. Once the decisions are made, and the changes set in motion, actual headquarters units in a wargame can be used to integrate the tools available to the player in the game. Similarly, headquarters units can be used to synchronize combat power during tabletop combat, maximizing the interaction effects of the units to make life as miserable as possible for your opponent. Just don’t leave them unprotected. Headquarters units hate to get attacked.

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