The Fog of War

A key element of General Staff gameplay is the notion of ‘fog of war’. In essence we keep three maps: what blue thinks the situation is, what red thinks the situation is and where all units actually are on the map.

A courier reports that an enemy unit was observed four minutes ago. Note: the enemy unit has almost certainly moved on since then. (Click to enlarge.)

A courier reports that an enemy unit was observed four minutes ago. Note: the enemy unit has almost certainly moved on since then. (Click to enlarge.)

Location of your headquarters (HQ) unit is vitally important in General Staff. If an enemy (or friendly) unit is not directly observable to your HQ unit, the information of an enemy unit sighting is passed to HQ via courier. The amount of time for the courier to travel from the observing unit to the HQ is precisely calculated (see screen capture, above). Friendly units report their position every hour and dispatch a courier to HQ with this information as well. The time for a courier to travel from the reporting unit to travel to HQ is also calculated.

In essence, then, locating your HQ unit on a hill, ridge or other prominent feature is important if you want a clear view of the battlefield. Otherwise, you will be dependent on your couriers to penetrate the fog of war.

The phrase, ‘Fog of War’ (or Nebel des Krieges in German) was first written by Carl von Clauswitz in his famous treatise, On War (in 1832, first English translation in 1873):

War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.

— Carl von Clausewitz

Update: some readers at Kriegsspiel Forum have quite correctly pointed out that at great distances units would certainly not be able to ascertain the name of the unit that they are observing. Consequently, we have changed the information provided to this:

Dispatch from observing unit modified to include distance and just unit type. (Click to enlarge.)

Dispatch from observing unit modified to include distance and just unit type. (Click to enlarge.)

Now the question arises: how far could you see with a 19th century telescope? Do we need to include a maximum range for line of sight? Interesting question. Would like to hear your comments.

10 thoughts on “The Fog of War

  1. Trygve Smidt

    Yes, I think so. You would however, also have considerations like the signature and size of the target, the eyesight and experience of the observer, as well as environmental factors to consider.
    First, the quality and magnification of the telescope would matter a lot. Any experienced soldier and hunter would tell you that the quality of your instrument is vital for the effective range of spotting AND for the level of light you need to see anything through it due to the qualitty of the lenses. With a top end rifle scope you can hunt at night without artificial light, with a poor one you will hardly see anything before you have sufficient daylight at dawn and dusk. I would guess that the 19th C telescopes would be similar to poor/medium class scopes today. Higher magnification gives you more range for spotting, and identification of objects/targets. Today most handheld binoculars have something between 8-10 x magnification because more than that requires a tripod/platform to keep it still enough to see anything clearly. Therefore I would reason that 19th C telescopes would have a magnification at 8 x at the most for a commander, as they also were meant to be used on horseback. Having spotted a lot with high quality equipment w 12 x magnification, my assessment is that you can with a 19th C telescope determine that you are looking at a standing adult person without any cover at a range of approx 4-8000 m depending on the signature of the uniform/dress and the background colors.

  2. Trygve Smidt

    Yes, the quality of the instrument is quite important for effective range, as is the magnification, signature and size of the object, and environmental factors.
    The eyesight of the spotter and experience would also count for identification of what you are looking at.

  3. Trygve Smidt

    I would assume that 19th C telescopes, also meant to be used on horseback, would have maximum 8 x magnification. With a comparable low-medium quality scope today, you would probably be able to identify that you are looking at a standing person at around 8000-10 000 m, given that he has clothing giving a stark contrast to the background.

  4. Ken

    I wish I still had the reference handy, but dust plumes (indicating moving bodies of people/animals) might be visible at greater distances under some conditions. The plumes raised by infantry and cavalry were differently shaped, and an experienced observer could tell the difference.

    1. EzraSidran Post author

      That’s very interesting. I’m not trying to be pedantic. I just want to make this close to accurate and fair to both sides.


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