I was thinking about this when playing with my aeronef game. I think it is linked with these questions: How many units? What command level? How much detail?
Knowing the answer to some of the questions gives you the answer to others.
For example, in a platoon-level game, the role of the player is platoon commander.
(a) Should he control individual soldiers?
(b) Should he control fire teams?
(c) Should he control squads?
I'm not a historian, I'm presuming (c) for WW2 games and perhaps (b) for more modern scenarios. In any case, (a) is out as I find it doubtful a WW2 platoon leader would be precisely controlling each and every individual soldier. (Perhaps only if they were standing right next to him?)
Now we know what level of abstraction to work at:
We'll probably activate soldiers as groups.
We might assume a 360 unit facing as we won't precisely note the facing of each individual soldiers
We probably won't count individual ammo or grenades - squads might have orders to "conserve ammo" or "mad minute"
Effects like suppression are applied to the squad as a whole
The precise location of individual soldiers in a squad might be elastic as it is the "footprint" or rough location of the squad we are interested in; i.e. we use area terrain instead of "true LoS" as the "squad occupies the house" rather than "Private Parts is standing in the attic window"
We won't bother with stats or special for individual soldiers, as we are interested in the squad as a whole (except perhaps the squad leaders, who do impact the squad as a whole)
...and so on. The point I'm making is the "command level" determines the "amount of detail" - or gives you a good guideline of what to abstract and what to keep "concrete".
Let's apply this to a naval game (a genre famous for rivet-counting detail and "complication"). Let's take Jutland for example. If you're Jellicoe and control 100+ ships including 28 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 34 cruisers and 78 destroyers.... would you really care if one of those 78 destroyers lost its "B" turret? Would someone even bother to tell you? Would you care if they did? Maybe the squadron commander would care, but would a fleet commander?
A fleet level wargame that includes that much (too much) detail, is, I would contend "unrealistic."
I'd suggest as commander of such a vast fleet, you would only be interested in the antics of squadrons or divisions of a half a dozen to a dozen destroyers or so. Actually, given the communications of the era, the fleet commander didn't know a lot at all. Which is a topic in itself, but I'll touch on it briefly here.
Communications obviously influences the level of control a commander has over his subordinates. You know how I thought a platoon commander in WW2 might only control a squad, but a modern platoon commander might control fire teams? That's because of the proliferation of individual radios and communication devices.
Too much detail is unrealistic. Elsewhere I've discussed how gamers tend to make the mistake in saying games are either "fun or realism" or "simple or realistic." This is wrong. They aren't opposites, or even related. They certainly aren't mutually exclusive. It's like saying "tall vs good looking."
Gamers tend to equate a complicated, detailed set of rules as being "realistic." Tracking every bullet fired, and if a 5 knot crosswind would effects them, is not neccessarily more realistic. It's more complicated, sure, and takes longer to resolve. It might even be appropriate in some circumstances (a 1v1 sniper duel?). But in the terms of our platoon level game, it is unrealistic. So more complexity and detail does NOT equate to more realism.
Wandering off topic slightly, I tend to like the terms:
Decision points - do you as the player have lots of decisions/opportunities to influence the game? (Within the scope of your actual role i.e. as platoon commander or whatever). The decisions you make can be realistic (reflecting real-world tactics) or unrealistic. Good game design should encourage you towards the former. IGOUGO tends to have few decision points.
Process/Resolution - this is how you do it (the dice rolling, measuring, stats/special rules, recording etc). This can be either simple vs complex, or detailed vs abstract. I tend to prefer as simple and easy as possible while giving sensible results. The process is NOT a matter of realistic or unrealistic - we're tossing dice on a table, for goodness sake. The key question: Is the process as simple as possible consistent with lots of decision points and realistic results?
....Results - are the outcome of your decisions and the resolution process. Your results tend to be realistic or unrealistic. You don't have 'simple' or 'complex' results. Is the outcome realistic?
A good game....So it follows a good game will have lots of (relevant, realistic) decision points, simple process/resolution methods, and give realistic results. And you can see simplicity/complexity and realism don't conflict.
....anyway, back to the topic, which was "what should the commander know" or perhaps "what gets detailed, and what is abstracted?" My final point is:
Tradition vs Innovation.
I suspect what we abstract or detail is based often more on tradition (i.e. previous games in the genre) than what is realistic. We copy activation and mechanics from other games because that's "normal" for, say, a WW2 game. Chain of Command has innovative deployment with a "mini game" showing scouting and determining setup. I'd say 95% of similar WW2 games (of which there is a huge range of rules) is "deploy your models anywhere 12" from the table edge." Having the actions of scouting, terrain features and "first contact" with the enemy determine your deployment seems sensible; more realistic than units facing off neatly in flat rows across the battlefield (aka FoW "tank carpark").
Why is this so "innovative"? Because every other WW2 game follows tradition, copying deployment mechanics from other games without considering "why?" Actually, the CoC deployment rules will be a handy example:
The whole mini-game is sensibly abstracted with tokens - as we are interested in the platoon vs platoon clash, the actions of individual scouts/pickets are ignored in favour of simpler play. The abstraction is even more realistic - the platoon leader could not direct the individual pickets movements personally nor would he necessarily need a blow-by-blow description of every shot fired, (even supposing a scout would fire and thus attract attention), but is rather interested in the location of enemies and good deployment points for his own troops. If the player as company leader could direct the individual actions each scout, it would be unrealistic as well as overly detailed and complex. The results are realistic, even if moving tokens around the battlefield are a simple method of resolution, and the player even has some decision points as to how he moves his "scout tokens."
What do you as a commander need to know? If it's not important, can you abstract/simplify it? Your command level sets out guidelines for your game design.
Too much detail can be unrealistic. It's not "simplicity vs realism" at all. Abstracting or simplifying things can add realism.
This all links in with holistic game design principles - it helps to find realistic "decision points" what to simplify in your "resolution" and is checked against your "results."
Finally, tradition can lock us into particular mechanics or methods - we need to focus on the results and see if there is a simpler way - and ask "why" something is abstracted or (perhaps more pertinently, if we seek simplicity) why it isn't.
There's quite a bit more to explore (i.e. tangents I didn't wander down, and things that could have been better explained) but my 2 year old needs "some 'tention" from her Dad. This does link with similar topics - Realism in Wargames and Realism Revisited - this is obviously a horse I enjoy flogging.