Return to Wargame Main Page Return to Wargame Articles Index
Decisive Action Designer Notes
Discussion Board on this Wargame Articles
by Jim Lundsford
<You can purchase the game in the StrategyPage Wargame Store
Decisive Action, recently released by HPS Simulations, is a realistic, tactical simulation of modern division and corps level combat. It has many unique features, which sets it apart from any other simulation of its kind. These features include its use of military maps, combat and logistics modeling, employment of official military symbology, terms, and graphics, unique approach to fog-of-war, and its powerful game editing system. The extraordinary game design reflects the designer's experience and the purpose of the game: to provide both the serious wargamer and the military professional with the best representation of the true nature of modern combat at the division and corps levels in an entertaining and playable way. Recently, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College purchased 1300 copies of the game. Every student in this year's class will receive their own personal copy of the game and it will be used in the classroom as the low-cost tactical simulation of division and corps combat operations.
The new commercial release of the game owes much of its design to the original game I developed for use at Fort Leavenworth. As a tactics instructor, I wanted something I could use in the classroom to help students experience important lessons without having to rely on discussion or practical exercises. Experience is always the best teacher and the only division-corps simulation exercise the students participated in during their ten-month course was Exercise PRAIRIE WARRIOR, the school capstone warfighting exercise. PRAIRIE WARRIOR uses the Army's Corps Battle Simulation (CBS) and is an expensive exercise involving over one thousand officers and support personnel.
The initial version of Decisive Action was successful and it was used for several years in the classroom. Since the original version did not have a computer-controlled opponent, student groups fought each other over the college LAN. During its initial use, I gained many insights into improvements that were needed in order to market a stand-alone game to a wider audience. The new version has two-player "hot-seat" and play-by-email options as well as human versus computer-controlled Red or Blue opponent.
The commercial game, still true to its military origins, stresses many important aspects of modern U.S. Army doctrine:
- Art of Command
- Principles of War
- Tenets of U.S. Army Operations
- Forms of Maneuver
- Targeting Methodology
- Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB)
Don't let the terms intimidate you. Most serious wargamers already have an informal but strong understanding of these subjects. Even military professionals sometimes need a good reference, so I included electronic copies of four key U.S. Army field manuals (FM) on the CD. These include the principle references for division operations, military terms and graphics, and IPB. Like all games, there is no guarantee of winning, but gamers will be more successful if they understand these subjects and apply them in an intelligent manner.
The game simulates tactical operations. By U.S. Army definition, tactical operations take place at corps-level and below and generally last hours or days in duration. It's important to note that the game is not a simulation of the operational level of war. The objective of the player is to win a battle… not a campaign. Each turn in the game represents two hours of combat. Most games will be over after ten to twenty turns (1-2 days.)
Decisive Action uses actual tactical maps for the game display. I chose this approach because commanders and staffs use maps and I wanted to make the game look and feel real. I also wanted to make it as easy as possible for players to construct their own scenarios. Although I included four geographical playing areas in the game: South-west Asia, National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin California, Eastern Kansas, and central Germany, players can create their own game map by importing any scanned map image (.bmp/.jpg). For more realism, the underlying terrain database displays latitude and longitude as well as the military UTM grids.
The game divides the map into one-kilometer squares instead of hexes. Terrain is classified for movement and combat using an expanded military terrain classification system. In addition to the standard military terrain types (unrestricted, restricted, and severely restricted), I added rivers, bridges, urban terrain, and deep water. The addition of these terrain types was necessary to reflect the impact terrain has on game-play.
The default view does not display the terrain classification on the tactical map, but the player can toggle on/off a colored overlay to view the effect the terrain will have on combat operations and movement (modified combined obstacle overlay). Using the game editor, players can adjust the terrain classification of the provided maps or apply terrain to their own maps.
Unit movement rates are affected by many factors to include terrain type, unit mobility, size, posture, command and control, and suppression levels. All movement is conducted simultaneously. Unit movement pauses when contact with an enemy occurs. Likewise, unit movement is slowed when passing through friendly forces. This simulates some aspect of battlefield friction. Gauging the timing of a counter-attack or a withdrawal is as challenging in the game as it is in real life. Route selection must be planned to optimize speed and security.
Screen Shot One
Ground combat is initiated when unit footprints overlap and is considered simultaneous. The size of the footprint is determined by the unit type, size, strength, and posture. Each unit is assigned a base combat strength. The basic attack/defense strength is modified based on number of engagements per turn, maneuver advantage/disadvantage, morale, suppression, terrain, logistics status, command and control status, and posture.
All units are hidden from the opponent unless they have been "spotted." Units are spotted whenever they come into contact with an enemy unit or they have crossed through an area where sensors have been placed. Sensors are modeled two ways. Each player receives a set number of graphically applied Named Areas of Interest (NAI.) NAI can be moved around the battlefield as the players shift their intelligence collection requirements. When an enemy unit moves through an active NAI, it becomes visible to the friendly player. In effect, the NAI represents a perfect representation of all collection assets available to a real division/corps commander. Depending on scenario, players may also have electronic warfare units and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV.)
Cannon/rocket/missile artillery units and air strikes provide fires during the game. Players can prioritize use of fires to support ground combat, suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD), counter-battery, or emplacement of scatterable mines. Based on the scenario, either or both players may have the ability to employ artillery-delivered persistent and non-persistent chemical agents. Attack helicopter attacks must be properly timed and supported to create the best effects. In the game, players are rewarded for conducting detailed fire support planning. Enemy units that are attacked by fires in close proximity to an active Targeted Area of Interest (TAI) will suffer twice as many casualties. Each player has a limited number of TAI for their use.
Engineering units can build obstacles, fortifications, and bridges. Units that attempt to demolish a bridge or breach an obstacle have a greater chance of success if they have engineering units in support. Although some units can conduct assault crossings over unfordable rivers, most require the use of a bridge. Engineer bridge units are critical assets that must be protected in scenarios involving river crossings.
Decisive Action air defense units consist of one of three types: short-range (SHORAD), high-medium altitude (HIMAD), and anti-theater ballistic missiles air defense. Since the U.S. Army relies on early air superiority by the U.S. Air Force and Navy, air defense units are relatively small and lightly equipped. Consequently, players must prioritize air protection based on criticality, vulnerability, recuperability, and threat. Players possessing a greater number of air defense units will find their air umbrella is stronger, but they must also follow the doctrinal processes or risk attack from a wiser enemy.
Each unit is evaluated for command and control (C2) based on its physical distance from its headquarters. Degraded C2 results in a corresponding reduction in movement and combat capabilities. Enemy electronic warfare attacks can also degrade C2. Positioning headquarters and managing C2 is critical in the game.
Logistics plays a major role in the game. Each unit expends supply points based on size, type, and activity. They depend on supply convoys from their supporting logistics unit to stay supplied. If these convoys are destroyed or the unit becomes isolated, the consequences are severe. The game defaults to an automatic resupply where the computer plans and conducts the needed resupply. At any time, players can become more involved with managing logistics by toggling the auto-resupply "off."
Screen Shot Two
Graphics are an important element in military planning. They help define the mission and the scope of a military operation. Decisive Action has an easy-to-use graphics tool that players can use to draw most operational graphics such as boundaries, phase lines, engagement areas, etc. Graphics are hidden from the opponent until the end of the game. Most of the graphics are for display only. The exceptions are NAI and TAI.
Understanding what happened during the battle, is always critical to improving tactical skills. Conducting post-mortem After-Action Reviews (AAR) is facilitated by the use of the Victory Status Chart; which records changes in Red and Blue strengths over time, current strengths, and total losses generated by major weapons systems. After the battle, each saved game turn can be reopened in the two-player mode to see the plans and status of the other side.
Using the Game Editor, players can build any modern tactical scenario of their choosing. All aspects of the game are user-modifiable. In addition to creating their own maps, they can build their own forces by selecting units from the provided unit database, modifying the provided units or creating their own unique units. Environmental conditions, air strike quotas, chemical munitions availability, etc. can all be changed to suit the scenario designer. It is my fervent hope, that the game will inspire many gamers to build their own scenarios and make them available to the rest of the wargaming community. Maximizing the ease and power of the Game Editor was one of my major priorities.
Scenario operations orders (OPORD) describe the general situation, mission, order of battle, and victory conditions for each player. As in real life, each side may not have a perfect understanding of their opponent's mission and situation. When creating new scenarios, players can either write the OPORDs for both sides within the Game Editor or import any rich-text file containing the necessary text and pictures. There are no limits on this OPORD. They can be as simple or detailed as the scenario designer wants.
Playing Decisive Action against the computer is both challenging and fun, but the real thrill comes from battling another human player. The game design greatly supports the practice of military art. Accurate battlefield visualization is the hallmark of any successful commander. Players that have a keen appreciation of time, space, distance and friendly/enemy capabilities will be to apply maximum combat power at the decisive point(s) in the fight. Random events and unexpected opponent actions can spoil even a brilliant commander's plans. This is true on any battlefield, but the better commander can usually persevere. Deception operations, although always difficult, pay large dividends. I used the previous version of the game for two years to teach tactics. In every battle, I gained some new insight into the art of command, decision-making, the American way of war, or doctrine.
Decisive Action attempts to blend the realism of military simulations with the ease and fun of traditional wargames. It is certainly not a game for the casual wargamer. The absence of the visibly structured approach of hex-based games, while intimidating at first, makes for a much more realistic look and feel. New players may have to play the game several times before they feel comfortable making decisions and directing operations successfully. After only several successful games though, players from all backgrounds will have a keener appreciation of the daunting challenges modern commanders and staffs face. All will agree, that it is a unique experience and tackles the challenge of simulating tactical warfare in a manner never tried before.
For more information on Decisive Action, visit the HPS Sims web site at http://www.hpssims.com/.