When to start a war? The Grand Strategy perspective.
Most games expect you to conquer somebody in order to win. You might be divided into teams, or in the grander game of politics you can gain allies to defeat a bigger opponent. Whatever the case, when you want to start a war there are always a few factors which make such a move a good or a bad idea. In this article I want to mention a few things that you should watch out for, when considering an open conflict. Although these points might not apply to every single game, some of them might come up.
I hate politics…
A lot of strategy games have a political element. Alliances, trade, neutrality pacts, perhaps an on the side deal to smuggle in weapons? Politics with the AI is limited to what the game offers, but with players it’s a whole different story. What does politics have to do with war? What doesn’t it have to do with war? “Why then” you might ask “Is it so important?”.
It is easy to click on your neighbour and then declare war on him. What you could walk into is a downward spiral of all of his friends declaring war on you. Instead of fighting against one small nation, you wage an all out war against the entire world. Always look at the agreements a potential foe can have and if you can, check their relations with other nations. In some games, certain nations or races are more likely to start a war if they see you acting out-of-place. Sometimes, declaring war will result in your population being unhappy. In the era of trade embargos and other methods of surrounding you in a number of ways, always pay attention to politics.
You might now think that politics is only a “thing” to watch out for, but you can use it to your own advantage. I have had games against other players, where I would bribe AI nations into declaring war on a specific person. There was no need for my own personal military involvement and I was well aware that I could proceed with my growth/research/expansion. By securing agreements with the “bigger players”, such as non-aggression pacts, you will be free to harass smaller nations. Remember that you do not have to declare war on everybody. If there is just the “one guy” you want to destroy, remember that most games offer Military Access agreements.
A well planned diplomatic campaign ahead of your military campaign could make the upcoming conflict much more pleasant and easier. There are times when you are not concerned with politics, because you are big or strong enough to handle multiple foes. If you are not, master the art of the pen before you take up the sword. If you want to find out what sort of mess politics can lead to, see the First World War as an example.
Terrain, Infrastructure, Weather and Structures.
Humanity would not go far without maps. In strategy games maps are an essential for any planning. You might zoom out to get a general view, or take a closer look at a specific region. What maps offer you is information. Information about terrain type, any buildings or structures, enemy positions, weather or maybe resources. What role does a map play when preparing a war? It allows you to formulate your plan. It is always tempting to declare a blind war, charge head first into enemy territory and win. In reality, having no idea where enemy cities are, or what type of terrain to expect when entering a region begs for a total disaster.
Terrain is used in a lot of games to influence the effectiveness of your units. Whether defending, attacking or moving, different types of terrain could be a boon or a curse. Knowing what waits for you allows you to prepare your invasion force accordingly. Knowing where enemy city’s are lets you decide in which direction should your attack head first. Weather can also play a big role. Perhaps you lack the preparations for a Winter war, or the desert is just too warm for your units? Take note of other structures as well. Not only defensive structures, but bridges and roads as well. A destroyed key bridge could halt your advance entirely. Knowing where the “veins” of the nation are, allows you to cut off supplies or intercept reinforcements ahead of time. Think of how D-Day was planned and how it was executed. How many factors had to be taken into account.
Espionage and Technology
Knowing is half the battle.If you have access to spies, use them. Find out where enemy troop concentrations are, what is being produced, how good is their technology. A single key observation by your spy could mean the difference between starting a war and delaying it a bit longer to make important preparations. How “good” Espionage is differs from game to game. In Hearts of Iron it usually gave you a brief general view of the enemy’s war abilities, but it also provided a lot of other important information.
Knowing how advanced your opponent is, compared to you, is also one of the factors you have to take into account. Although both sides could have infantry, there is a difference between Machineguns and bows. In some games it is impossible to be equally advanced in all areas, so exploiting the enemy’s weakness is not a bad idea.
Espionage is not only knowledge of what the enemy has, but it’s also the knowledge of where the enemy is moving. If you know of a counter-attack ahead of time you can prepare for it. If there is a spot on the map undefended, you exploit it.
The “If all else fails” War Plan
Let’s be honest, even if you prepared everything as expertly as you could something can go wrong. Even the most enthusiastic attack can have a sudden setback. Always have a plan on what to do if everything goes bad. It might be your own Maginot Line waiting back home, or a garrison force/reserve which is meant for the last-ditch attempt at “Win or Lose”. Whatever your plan, be sure that you have one. If you saw people write “GG” and leave before you had a chance to win, that’s a symptom of lack of planning. There is always the assumption among some, that once you lose a scenario that always worked thus far, you have no reason to try further. Defeatism is an easy way to make yourself feel miserable. Do not ever give up and if you know you will lose, make it count.
I rarely leave a game when I know I will lose. There have been situations when my entire team would leave and I would be the last one to hold the fort. A few times this did result with the opposing team asking me to leave, because they were bothered with me stopping their numerous attacks.
In the best case scenario, you might cause an unexpected outcome, defeat the enemy counter-attack in your home territory or sign a favorable Peace Treaty. Never lose hope when the situation is bad. Plan how to change it.
Set the Task Force to the task
It is always tempting to send your entire force against a single opponent. Most of the time that’s a waste of resources. In a recent play through in Hearts of Iron 2 I needed over 100 divisions to defeat and conquer France, but only 6 to conquer Norway. I might had sent the very same 100 divisions to Norway, however the costs of such an operation would be way too big to reap any real benefits. Later on when I prepared for the Invasion of mainland United Kingdom it took me years of preparing both the land forces and especially the Navy for such a complicated operation.
When you are facing an opponent and you know his strengths and weaknesses you can prepare a specific task force to face them. A distant opponent or one who can only be reached in a specific method calls for careful planning, so that if you do lose a part of your force the attack can still proceed. It is better to wait a few turns, months or years in-game to prepare a proper attack, rather than rush it with what you have now and be defeated at the pinnacle of your success (Moscow 1941, Warsaw 1920).
Some games do not take into account transport costs, nor do they add any complexity when you move a single unit or thirty different units. Those that do are merciless when it comes to mindlessly moving large forces about. The Hearts of Iron series shows in the best way possible how an Amphibious Assault cannot “just happen” and it often takes very little for an operation to end in failure. In other games, like Empire: Total War, the cost of having a full standing army is always high enough that you cannot create a massive force and send it forward blindly.
In Short Summary
Strategy games are fun, but not as much fun as winning in style. When planning a war or an attack it helps to take all the variables into account. You might surprise yourself how little it takes to conduct an excellent defense or a flawless attack. There is one important factor you cannot always take into account, the human factor. The AI is often predictable and after some time you learn all of its behaviors. Playing against a human is different because their decisions might be unpredictable. Just like you, they will think and analyze, planning your downfall. That is, unless you are playing together to defeat the AI.
Alex “WriterX” Bielski