He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. 

Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy. 

Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat firsts fights and afterwards looks for victory.

–Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter IV: Tactical Dispositions, [13-15]

One of the biggest mistakes you’ll see over and over in wargaming is bad deployment. It’s not the biggest mistake–we’ll cover that next time–but it’s certainly in the Top 10.

Wargamers, not knowing the capabilities of their opponent’s forces (or worse, their own), will place their armies on the tabletop without much of a plan in mind. Then they charge in and hope for the best.

You need a plan, or at least some semblance of one, before you set up.

In a standard pitched battle scenario, you need to figure out…
A) Your plan of defense–how not to get rolled over in the first couple game turns.
B) Your plan of offense–how you’re going to take the fight to the enemy.

Of the two, focus on offense. Even if you’re on the defense, figure out a plan of attack.

Before the deployment begins, you need to take a long look at the terrain on the tabletop, and ask yourself the following important questions:

  1. What are my objectives?
  2. How can I deploy my forces to achieve those objectives?
  3. What are my opponent’s objectives?
  4. Which areas of the battlefield have the best terrain for offense?
  5. Which areas of the battlefield have the best terrain for defense?
  6. Do I get to choose which side of the table where you setup your armies?
  7. How does deployment work?

Each wargame has its own idiosyncrasies when it comes to deployment. What works in one game (or historical period) may not work in another.

For example, placing mounted knights to run down some enemy spearmen might be good idea for a game in the high medieval period, but not so much if they’re going up against pikemen in a late-medieval/renaissance game.

In some scenarios, especially those based on history, you might not be given an option to deploy your forces as you see fit. And that’s fine, so long as you play the game understand this.

Some of the worst games out there have random deployment; your troop positions are determined by a die roll. Avoid them like the plague unless your really into the nonsensical.

Some games have strict rules about command and control. Make sure your troops are in the command radius of their commander(s).

In scenarios where one side sets up first and then the other in full view of each other, it’s best you set up last, that way you can counter your opponent’s formations.

It’s best however, to alternate deploying units or using a screen for concealment as each side sets up.

Next on The Art of Wargaming: “The Biggest Mistake You Can Commit in Wargaming.”