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Battle Lab: The Fog of War(gaming)


What don’t we know about what we don’t know that we don’t know?

Brant Guillory, 8 July 2015

Note that this is a reprint of this article.
Click images to enlarge.

What is the Fog of War?

If ask 10 different people, you’ll get 10 different answers. In fact, I did just that, and here are some excerpts:

“Fog of War is the state of affairs on the battlefield (or pertaining to it) that is beyond a commander’s knowledge. For example, a commander may have a unit which has achieved a specific objective, but the commander is unaware of it due to the fact not having been relayed back to him. A second example may be that a specific objective may house an enemy commander’s HQ but that knowledge is withheld for whatever reason; in terms of conditions on the battlefield may appear to be an irrelevant objective or one that seems a dangerous, undefined, or irrelevant mission.”

“the enemy’s course of action is unknown and/or unconfirmed.”

“Fog of War refers to the confusion and lack of certainty a commander faces while making decisions on how to conduct a battle or war. Since modern war occurs over an area too large for a single commander to view, they rely on information from various sources to develop a mental model of what is occurring. They make their judgment and issue orders based on what they believe is occurring. Lack of information, wrong information, late information, all contribute to create an imperfect perception of what is occurring. This disconnect between what the commander thinks is occurring and what actually is occurring is referred to as the Fog of War.”

“The Fog of War is the lack of certainty in regard to the intent and composition of the enemy.”

“It is summed up as uncertainty based on lack of knowledge.”

“The Fog of War is that period of uncertainty from when the Enemy’s intentions are surmised and the enemy’s actions are known.”

“All the things everyone doesn’t know for sure during an armed conflict.”

So, generally, the “fog of war” is the lack of perfect situational awareness that comes about naturally as a result of actions on the battlefield. Of course it can be present in varying degrees – it is never either “on” or “off”. Curiously enough, the US Army and Marine Corps have no official definitions in their field manuals defining operational terms and graphics.

When examining the issues around “fog of war” however, how can we apply the problems, and their potential solutions, to boardgaming. This is one area in which our computer-gaming brethren have our butts kicked. Computer models can integrate a variety of fog of war effects, in large part because the computer can hide or reveal as much or as little as the programmers desire. It’s much harder to hid information when it’s all printed on a counter in front of you.

Fog of War: Bad Guy Version

FOW-CR1When fog of war comes up in conversation, most people immediately assume the lack of situational awareness is related to information about the enemy. Not knowing everything about the enemy rather typical on the battlefield. What information does the commander need about the enemy? It depends on the actions he needs to execute (see previous article on tactical intel in wargaming).

Typically, however, commanders are most interested in enemy (a) locations (b) strength (c) capabilities (d) supply status and (e) morale. When developing an enemy situation in the military decision-making process (MDMP), these are the areas on which staff officers focus.

FOW-CR2Some of these issues can be seen during the typical boardgame. When playing the newest Axis & Allies game, Battle of the Bulge, for instance, enemy supply convoys are moved on the map, and therefore enemy supply status is not difficult to see. Similarly, the Lock ‘n’ Load series games have morale values printed on the counters. Other games make tracking such information potentially more challenging; PanzerGrenadier games inform the players of the morale values of either side in the scenario instructions. It would not be a stretch to keep those values from each other and play without specific knowledge of the enemy’s morale.

FOW-CR3In any case, there is certain information about the enemy which may be desired, but not known, or it may be known now and ever-changing. On the real battlefield, this information may be extremely difficult, or outright impossible, to get. On the hexagonal battlefield, however, much of this information isn’t just easy to get. It often does not change, and it is often printed open and available for everyone to see.

Additionally, when looking for enemy units on the battlefield, wargamers seldom have to deal with three different scout teams reporting a sighting of a tank platoon, leading the staff in the command post to believe that an enemy tank platoon is actually three tank platoons. It is clear to the players that only one counter is occupying the space, not three. It is rarely clear to the command post that the scouts are all looking at the same unit, especially if they all report slightly different map grids to the tank platoon.

As mentioned above, the information may change as well, and the accurate information 30 minutes ago is no longer useful. While this is easiest to understand with regards to unit locations (when units are moving), the status of a unit’s fuel consumption is likely to be changing regularly as well. Morale may vary up and down, depending on the circumstances. That doesn’t mean the information received 30 minutes ago was wrong, but it is still useless. As one of my former commanders used to say, “The truth is a moving target.”


Fog of War: Good Guy Version

When asking around, only one person explicitly mentioned friendly forces when asked about fog of war:

“It can also include uncertainty or lack of knowledge as to your own forces, location, number, state of mind (ready to break, etc.)”

FOW-friendly1The “fog of war” that is often not addressed in a wargame is the friendly fog of war. Not only does a wargame commander always know his units’ current strengths, but also locations, capabilities, and prospects for future operations. On the hexagonal battlefield, it is rare that units get lost, mis-read maps and report incorrect locations, identify friendly units as enemy ones in fuzzy thermal sights, lose a convoy at a tricky road intersection, or place the radio retrans team in the wrong place and lose communications with headquarters. Would the 507th Maintenance Company (of Jessica Lynch infamy) have been ambushed on a wargame map? Not likely, since the commanders of the cardboard counters on the map tend to go exactly where they are told to go, instead of mis-reading their maps and failing to annotate the correct routes on them.

FOW-friendly2When a friendly unit reports that they are in a certain location, and the command post notes it on the map, it is considered accurate by the commander until somehow proven wrong. However, anyone with any military experience knows that each battalion receives as part of their standard kit a non-map-reading troop leader. It may be a captain, it may be a sergeant, but at least once during the battle, at least one unit will improperly report their location. Often, the worst that happens is that they have to hustle a bit faster when told to move, because they realize they’ve got further to go than expected. Other times, it can have devastating consequences, such as incoming artillery fire, which was cleared by the fire direction center because they were told no friendly forces were in the area.

FOW-friendly3Other than map-reading, friendly fog of war can have other negative effects. Supply and ammunition status can be very important in determining which units are fit for which missions – especially if those missions are appearing in the middle of an ongoing battle. If the commander thinks 3d platoon is 80% full on ammunition, they may get assigned to lead an assault. If they are actually only 40% full, it could be a bad day for them.


How “fog of war” has been integrated into board wargames

There have been many different approaches to simulating the fog of war in boardgames. The most familiar to wargamers is likely to be Columbia Games’ “blocks” system, where cardboard counters are replaced by small wooden blocks capable of standing on their sides, hiding the unit and its strength from the opponent.

One system that appeared briefly in the mid-70s attempted to address some friendly fog of war effects. SPI’s Modern Battles II series incorporated the idea of “untried” units. Units started the game face-down, with only a unit symbol and movement value showing, and a “U” in place of the combat values. The first time units engage in combat, they are flipped face-up, revealing their combat values for the first time. In this system, neither combatant knows how well the units will perform in battle until the battle is joined. SPI’s Invasion America had a similar system using question marks (“?”) in place of some values until a unit entered combat.

FOW-MB2Both of these systems have flaws, however. Columbia’s system prevents the opponent from seeing a player’s units, but it prevents the opponent from seeing anything of that unit. While reconnaissance may not be able to determine how well a tank unit can fight, they are certainly capable of at least determining that the enemy unit consists of tanks instead of dismounted infantry. Columbia’s blocks are blank on the reverse side, which prevents any sort of intelligence from being gathered, even that which is realistic to expect.

SPI’s Modern Battles II system does not allow for unit cohesion, since designations are necessarily hidden from the players. While this may not be important for most players, there are some for whom this is a big issue. Additionally, this system does not allow a friendly commander any insight into his subordinate units. He has no way to know which units may have been better trained, or manned with more cohesive platoons, or called in from leave for an emergency deployment, or even which were reserve formations mobilized for recall.


Other techniques to integrate “fog of war” into a board wargame

The classic integration of fog of war is a refereed double-blind game. In this type of game, neither player can see the ‘master’ map, where a referee maintains the accurate situation on the battlefield. As players issue their orders to their subordinate units, the referee determines the effects of movement and combat, and informs each player of the results. Each player has his own map where he maintains his understanding of the situation, which may be imperfect. Depending on the rules of the game, the referee may report the actual enemy unit to a player as it comes into view, or may report a basic visual confirmation “this unit spots 6 tanks in this location.” The referee may move units to the exact locations specified by the player, or may modify the actual movement based on some measure of competency of the subordinate commander. Game effects may be immediately reported – “this unit loses 2 steps” – or left to more vague assessments, such as “this unit comes under fire and takes casualties” with the effects to be seen the next time it goes into combat.

Neil Garra’s Soldier Chess book includes a randomization option for fog of war using a deck of cards. Working from this basic ideas, this article includes a set of cards (PDF download) that can be printed and cut out for use with BayonetGames’ Warfighter series that may be easily adapted to other platoon-level games. These cards allow various fog of war effects to be integrated during the game, incorporating such real-world problems as lost platoons, poor supply reporting, loss of communications with subordinates, or morale problems.


How real do you want your paper wars?

Fog of War is a serious issue for soldiers in the field. Many training exercises are devoted to training command post soldiers in their battle tracking skills for the sole purpose of reducing the fog of war. Command posts exist to provide the commander with the information he needs to make accurate decisions, and the communications assets needed to disseminate those decisions. Fog of war interferes with both of those tasks.

In the board game world, however, this is much more difficult. Fog of war is (obviously) greatly reduced by printing values on the counters. It is a tradeoff of realism vs convenience that has been made for so long that no other paradigm really exists within the boardgame community. Similarly, information about one’s own forces is virtually always accurate and reliable, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary in the real world. Boardgames are often touted as a way to put players in the shoes of historical (or hypothetical) commanders, offering players a chance to compare their skills against the history books.

Unfortunately, however, game players tend to have far more information at their disposal than the men on the battlefields of Saratoga, Jena, Sicily, Verdun, Singapore, or Midway. Making the same decisions with an overwhelming amount of knowledge is almost, well, cheating. But so far, we haven’t really developed any better systems for boardgames.

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2 Responses to Battle Lab: The Fog of War(gaming)

  1. Jan Spoor says:

    I’m a great fan of fog of war. I recently umpired a Waterloo campaign game for my local games club, using several copies of the map to create a triple-blind game (French, Prussian, and Anglo-Allied). The players weren’t too thrown by not having a clear idea of where their Allies were, but it’s an example of Blue being sometimes as unknown as Red.

    Another element of fog of war, which maybe less relevant at the operational level than the tactical, is knowledge of terrain. Less an issue for modern armies, perhaps, but many battles in the past turned on knowledge of terrain and terrain + weather conditions. This gave advantages either to forces with local knowledge or ones that had superior scouting and recon ability.

  2. Arrigo Velicogna says:

    Differently from the previous commenter I think Fog of War has been massively overrated. People equates Fog of War in games with limited information and thus jump to the conclusion that computer are better. It is not. Let’s look at one of the point you raise. in Lock and Load you know squads and teams morale factor. It is this bad by itself? Well, if you have a way to actually forecast exact combat results yes. But in the end you still need to roll dice representing a lot of those small factors that make the difference between breaking or or holding up. Yes you know what to reasonably expect from the opposition, but let’s say we are playing Band of Heroes for real and we see people in peadot camo firing at us. We will think they are hard to break. Then they melt away (they were an hastily dispatched ersatz company) and we wonder what happened. Yes in LnL you got some glimpse of Fog of War.

    I can present thousands (ok, several dozens) of similar examples, but in the end what usually game provides are expected intelligence information and then actual outcome after you have engaged. You roll 1? Well it was the platoon commander reading the map upside down. To a certain extent because we are dealing with lack of exact information the random process is a better way to represent it than explicit limited intelligence rules. you can have abstracted fog of war without having to hassle players with limiting devices.

    On the other hand I have been largely disappointed by double blind things. The last one I umpired (Professor Sabin, 1914 game) was basically disappointing (in his usual quest for abstraction he omitted any kind of reconnaissance air or ground). I flatly stated it in the post session discussion.

    Where double blind or explicit limited intelligence really is needed is in games where the focus is information gathering. The best example that I have is Carrier (and to a lesser extent Tokyo Express) and also flat top. There the explicit representation of reconnaissance operations is modeled up front. I am quite happy with that approach but because it fits on the scope and aims.

    All the best,

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