Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm – Strat Chat
Timing Isn’t Everything, But It Does Help – Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm and the OODA Loop
Author: Jim Zabek
“In the loop.”
“Out of the loop.”
We’ve all heard the expression before. But what is “the loop?”
The loop refers to a genius Air Force Colonel by the name of John Boyd. Boyd came up with his OODA loop theory in trying to explain why some pilots had an advantage over others. There is a simple decision process when you’re in a dogfight, and how quickly you can process the information around you, interpret it, and act is vital. Thus the OODA loop was born: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
In hindsight OODA seems to be obvious, but it is one of those small obvious things that ends up having big implications. Observing your surroundings, orienting them so you understand what they mean, deciding what to do about them, and acting upon them pretty much describes every decision making process humans make. A quick search of the internet turns up results that suggest a variety of disciplines have adopted the terminology – everything from the military to science to business consulting.
The OODA loop originated in the Air Force, but it was adopted (if not formally at least informally) by the US Army because it was useful in describing how friendly and enemy commanders made decisions about the conduct of battle. The side which could observe, interpret, and act upon the freshest information had a distinct advantage over one that took longer. Troops in the field, of course, observe conditions on the ground immediately. How quickly that information gets passed up through the chain of command is important. Equally important is how quickly that information is processed, a decision is made, the decision passed back down the chain of command, and the troops on the ground take action is vital.
If it takes a colonel of one side fifteen minutes to complete an OODA cycle and it takes the colonel on the other side thirty minutes, then the slower colonel may be ordering troops to do something that was relevant thirty minutes ago instead of right now. That can be a lifetime in a battle of blitzkrieg speeds and deadly Cold War weaponry. An enemy may not be where you thought he was supposed to be because your command cycle is too slow. In a nutshell that’s called “being inside the enemy’s loop.” You’re thinking and processing and acting faster than he is (or he is to you). During the battle of France Rommel’s forces were sometimes called the “Ghost Division” because he was moving so fast that even his own commanders weren’t certain where he was. The name is new. The process is not.
Many Real-Time Strategy games offer hotkeys to allow the player to pump out units as fast as a keystroke. The OODA loop is real-time for both players, and whoever can move through his own OODA loop fastest (and best) will outplay the other player.
Replicating an OODA loop in turn-based games, however, isn’t typically done. Traditionally both sides are given fixed, symmetric turns. They may represent five minutes, one minute, or a say, but traditionally the turns are equal.
A couple of years ago Jim Snyder and I were discussing the OODA loop and the challenge of modeling it in turn-based games. I recall suggesting that turn times be different depending on the speed one side could work through its OODA loop. As events unfolded out that spontaneous conversation qualified me as a playtester for the game.
Flash forward to today. Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm has implemented the OODA loop. In every turn-based game I can remember playing turn times were always symmetrical. Players give orders to units, then a fixed period of time runs. Each player shares an equal amount of time in every turn.
Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm has thrown that model out. Instead turn times are variable depending on a number of factors: the amount of EW (Electronic Warfare) hindering your communications, the percent of active HQ units you have active, The percentage of overall subunits you have active, the average unit readiness of your force, and the future command cycle time which can vary according to how many – if any – HQ units you lose in the course of the current turn.
Both friendly and opposition command cycle times are displayed under the C3 tab in the upper right of the screen. I have played games where the Soviets had much shorter command cycles and games where my NATO forces had better command cycles.
During the course of the game I have seen the estimated decisions cycles vary, at one point behind, then ahead of the opfor, only to find that at the end of the turn I had fallen behind again. The key in almost every situation is to keep more of your troops alive and to keep the HQ units alive at all possible costs. There have been times I have found that going “all in” and moving HQ units up to fight has been a good move. However, more often than not keeping them safe was the better move.
When the decision cycles are nearly symmetrical Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm plays much like a traditional wargame and players are not likely to notice many differences from other games in terms of how the game plays. However, in cases where the decision cycle is significantly behind the opfor’s I have noticed that my units responded sluggishly to my commands. Orders seemed to take forever to be implemented and when they were events on the battlefield may have evolved to the point where the last order I gave was irrelevant. Delays in orders have been a design feature in some wargames for years, but variable turn length is new. Players will need to anticipate how events on the battlefield will be unfolding and how quickly an opfor with a faster command cycle may be able to react to any plan put in place. Clearly there is also a premium placed on hitting opposing HQ units. The ability to disrupt their function can tip the scales in terms of regaining the initiative in a command cycle.
Sometimes there is nothing that can be done about the state of your OODA loop. Attempting to degrade the opfor’s decision cycle is an important aspect of the overall strategy of winning in Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. Neglecting to take into account the advantage of hindrance it plays in a scenario is done at the player’s peril. It may not be the most important factor leading to victory or defeat, but it can play a substantial role. Enjoying a significant advantage in the decision cycle is a luxury that should be relished. Suffering from a disadvantage in the decision cycle should be a factor in all advanced and contingency plans. The asymmetric turns can be deceptive in how the decision cycle plays out in the game, and it is easy to forget that you may have an advantage or disadvantage until the noticeable difference is too late.