In my last post I mentioned that I don’t think most people have a clear understanding of the difference between “strategy” and “tactics”. This comes up a lot when people play wargames of any complexity and players brag about or bemoan the ineffectiveness of their “strategy” in the last battle, and someone invariably will say “you mean ‘tactics.'”

Here are a couple of the most common definitions of “strategy”

  • The science and art of using all the forces of a nation to execute approved plans as effectively as possible during peace or war.
  • The science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations.

… and here, from that same source are the most common definitions of “tactics”:

  • The military science that deals with securing objectives set by strategy, especially the technique of deploying and directing troops, ships, and aircraft in effective maneuvers against an enemy
  • Maneuvers used against an enemy

Hmmm… other than the definition of “tactics” referencing the word “strategy” is there really that much difference between the two definitions? If you replace “strategy” with “military leader” in the defintion of “tactics” the result looks a whole lot like the definition of “strategy” above.

So what is the difference?

If you go back to the roots of the greek and/or latin words from which they are derived, “strategy” basically means “from the office of the general” where “tactics” basically means “arrangement or deployment of forces”.

In my mind it really boils down the the simple statement that “strategy” is the “what” and “tactics” is the “how”.

For example, in the Civil War General Grant had one overriding “what” that he was attempting to do, and that was to use the overwhelming industrial might and manpower advantage of the North to wear down the South. That meant that as a “strategy” even if Grant lost a battle, he could still be winning the war. That’s perhaps the best example of how “strategy” and “tactics” are distinct.

For most practical purposes if you are engaged in a real or imaginary wartime scenario you should be able to ask yourself “what are we trying to do” and completely separately ask yourself “how are we going to do it?”

For example, let’s say that you are the United States in WW II and you are contemplating your options. Let’s say that you decide that you will divide and conquor the enemy, ignoring or simply stalling along one front (say the Pacific), while pressing the enemy on another front (say, Europe). That’s a “strategy.” That says nothing about how you intend to do it.

The whole issue gets complicated because both strategy and tactics become heirarchical. In other words, once you have a strategy in place, execution of that strategy necessarily involves making lower level plans that also break down into “what” and “how.” So when you say “Our strategy is to stall in the Pacific and Press the European front” and you give that to your military commanders, one group of them will focus entirely on Europe and come up with a lower level, more detailed “strategy” of their own. That “lower level strategy” might well be something like “we’ll focus on the soft underbelly of Europe and take Italy out first.” Again that’s a “what” not a “how”. And so on for ever lower levels of planning.

Another way I’ve heard people describe the difference between the two is that “strategy = plan” and “tactics = execution.” To me this is pretty close to the “what” and “how” I described above, but describing it that way might help some people determine the difference between the two.

In our last weekend’s D&D campaign, we needed to enter a highly defended compound and defeat a general inside the compound. The “strategy” we came up with was to try to use subterfuge to get as close as possible to a defending tower, and then to attack the tower from close distance using surprise, with the goal of putting our own forces on top of the tower to gain tactical advantage for any future combat.

How we did that was that we disguised most of the group and pretended to have captured another group member who was a known enemy of the general inside the compound. Once we got close enough using the subterfuge, we employed some specific abilities and items to allow us to quickly engage the archers at the top of the tower as we simultaneously engaged in melee with the troops below.

Our strategy was to use subterfuge to get close enough to allow us to use certain abilities that would not be useful from a distance, with the strategic goal of gaining the top of the tower for our own use. If we had simply chosen a strategy of charging the compound, by the time we would have engaged the troops on the ground, the archers in the tower would have been nailing us with arrows repeatedly. Taking the top of the tower allowed us to set up our own ranged attacks on any potential reinforcements.

The strategy worked, but it was a close run thing because as all commanders know, it is a rare plan that survives contact with the enemy. Our first effort to gain access to the top of the tower ended up with my character being teleported off of the tower 60 feet above a tyrannosaur infested pit, where he was dropped unceremoniously. However, even that had the desired strategic objective of distracting the archers and the commander on the top of the tower long enough that our ground forces were able to push back the guards and our secondary force was able to reach the top of the tower without facing withering arrow fire. Sure my character almost died, but hey, that’s how things go.

Now we’ve got the top of the tower and the front of the tower secured and we’ll need a new strategy for storming the interior of the tower, but the higher level overall strategy of taking the tower and putting our forces in a tactically advantageous position has already been successful. That will make it very difficult for the general to send in reinforcements to come to the aid of the trapped guards in the first tower. In the actual battle we used a variety of tactics, including using grappling hooks and ropes to scale the wall while the defenders at the top were engaged with my character, who had used a rare (and costly) magic teleporting arrow to immediately engage the archers and battle commander at the top of the tower to keep them from picking off the other party members using grappling hooks.

Dunno if this helps, or if anyone wants to disagree, but that’s how I see “strategy” vs. “tactics.”