Situational Awareness in Tanks: Comprehension

Before anyone starts these videos were recorded and this article submitted BEFORE the T-150 article was published so they're using the same settings as that one. Future videos will feature a higher resolution.
How cold is it where you live?
wonderful HD!
The most remarkable thing I took from these videos - apart from instructions on how to play light tanks better >< - was how much chatter there is on the US servers. On the EU servers, chat - and thus co-ordination - is largely limited to people trying to find out what language other people speak...
There's a lot of chatter, but not much coordination, heh. Between primary and secondary languages for Canada, the U.S., and several Central and South American countries most of what happens on the NA server is assumed to be English more or less. When two people speak a common non-English language they seem to flag sit chatting away and get annihilated after letting the enemy annihilate the rest of their team they weren't busy helping. I can't even imagine trying to figure out the dozens of primary languages the EU server must deal with.
US server chat is used for telling others there shit and should quit...

(Author's note: If you missed Situational Awareness in Tanks:Perception, you’ll want to read that before delving into this article.)

Comprehension (Level 2 SA): The next step in SA formation involves a synthesis of disjointed Level 1 SA elements through the processes of pattern recognition, interpretation, and evaluation. Level 2 SA requires integrating this information to understand how it will impact upon the individual's goals and objectives. This includes developing a comprehensive picture of the world, or of that portion of the world of concern to the individual.

Most WoT players are expected to operate at this level of situational awareness at all times. Once battle is joined, one should be able to, at a glance:

  • Recognize areas their team has chosen to make points of interest.
  • Recognize where the opposition is concentrating the bulk of their defenses.
  • Recognize obvious holes in their team's defenses.
  • Recognize where their tank will be most needed based on their team's deployment.

On the tactical level this is fine, but the concepts extend to the combat level as well. Based on experience, one should know what kinds of odds their tank is capable of handling, how to optimally maneuver their tank, and perhaps, most importantly, to leave an avenue of retreat available and not let it close while alive. This is the level of situational awareness that is most tied to tank strategy guides and present tense gameplay.

Combat Level Comprehension

I’ll address combat level situational awareness first as it is required in order to deal with immediate threats. When engaged, it is easy to get tunnel vision and neglect the minimap and even your tank's surroundings. I’m not referring to the literal, enforced tunnel vision of the fully zoomed-in gunner's scope mode, but rather to the mind's tendency when focusing intently on an object to filter out peripheral elements. This is not as bad as the “deer in the headlights” freezing you see sometimes when people face a KV-2 or similar tanks, but it can be just as dangerous. The longer you let it go on, the more time you give enemies you’re not focusing on to outmaneuver you. Fighting this loss of situational awareness requires calm and experience.

Often an opponent is more interested in keeping you busy than trying to kill you. When an opponent directly around a corner is driving back and forth and changing angles, they are trying to get you to fire and waste a shell and reload time so they can get a shot in, but they’re also probably delaying you so hostiles can lap around while they have your focus. It’s possible they will jump out enough to be fired upon at some point, but the risk of not checking the minimap at every opportunity is probably greater than the risk of their opportune shot. Perception directly impacts comprehension and inhibiting an opponent's accurate perception of a situation, as noted in the previous article, directly affects their ability to make informed decisions.

A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.
— George S. Patton

It is important to remember that humans are not the rational actors assumed in some versions of game theory, and they will not necessarily act optimally in a given situation, nor will one human be guaranteed to act in the same way as another in the same circumstances. When faced with overwhelming firepower, some will retreat optimally, others will retreat wildly, and some will instead hunker down. Each player has their own reasons for the choices they make and will likely disagree with others, often vocally in chat, post-mortem, and with a great deal of profanity.

It is important to remember that each player's gameplay is informed by their prior experiences with the tank in question as well as by their perception of the tactical situation. Two players, given identical tanks and loadouts, can behave in wildly different manners based on their prior successes and failures. It is this lack of predictability that makes each match unique. A T-150 commander used to steamrollering the competition may have difficulty when faced with superior forces, whereas the experienced player will know their tank's abilities and limitations and fill in a support role.

Gauging the experiences of teammates based on observation of their movement style and tank is an important skill. For example, a leapfrog advance is a common method of covering ground where a single tanker that does not advance when it is their turn will slow or halt the entire flank. At this point, several questions may come to mind:

  • Is this commander fearful of exposing their tank as the force comes closer to assured enemy contact? Do they lack confidence in their tank or in their own ability?
  • Is this commander hoping to apply sniping fire from the rear, seeing their current position as optimal for their play style? Do they think their contribution from that position will be greater than lending a greater and more concentrated weight of fire farther forward?
  • Does this commander believe the flank should cease advancing at this position and await enemy contact from these defensive positions? Do they believe there is greater benefit to thinning the enemy's numbers here than to capturing more ground and hemming in the opposition?

Any of these situations (or others) could be the reason for the halt, but there is no time in battle with strangers to properly compare notes. The situation forces one to decide their own course. Is it safe to advance without that element? Who should be the first to move up again? Often a large group of tanks will stop and take up positions simply because one member of the flank halted, resulting in a very weak deployment in dispersive ground; or worse, forward elements will think their more conservatively deployed teammates are cowards, whereas those teammates think them foolhardy.

You hit somebody with your fist and not with your fingers spread.
— Heinz Guderian

Caution and recklessness can be infective. In this way, many commanders may end up fighting in suboptimal situations for their own vehicle instead of sacrificing concentration of force. The key is recognizing when to give up some of your tank's advantages in order to better the team's objectives and when not to. A single enemy can strike only one tank at a time, whereas several tanks can force the single opponent into a disadvantageous position. In this way, even the heaviest tanks can be picked apart by multiple opponents hitting vital areas. Concentration of fire can build great momentum in an assault, but one must also recognize when an assault has faltered and move to cover. Sitting still in the open, hoping your guns will force a victory, will ensure the opposite. The important thing is to move not as a mob but as a group. Much like when driving a car, leave your allies room to maneuver and don’t box them in by driving right up behind them. You want to be close enough to shoot their target but not so close you get in their way.

An excellent illustration of these principles is the T-34-85 example match below, wherein I sacrifice the stealth and view range advantages of my tank to directly threaten the opponents alongside my teammates. Conversely, this tactic will backfire if too many of the tanks are out of their element. A huge force of tanks of any class will easily outgun any opponent, but a large force in one area means that many other areas of the map must be poorly guarded and will soon be exploited by the enemy. After a few minutes, the formerly triumphant gang may find they are the only tanks left on their side. Few would argue that the shock value of an entire team storming across the field of Malinovka is far outweighed by the losses they will incur along the way. As the ELC AMX example below demonstrates, a force can be picked apart when many individuals apply their tanks in suboptimal situations, such as engaging at brawling range in a tank destroyer or advancing into hemmed-in ground alone.

In reference to Sun Tzu’s writings, an area one player considers hemmed-in ground while driving an AMX 12t might be considered contentious ground to a T-150 driver. Similarly, a T-150 driver that does not properly angle their hull, or strays from sheer surfaces shielding one from artillery bombardment, while occupying that same terrain, may consider it desperate ground. This type of assessment and the tactical considerations involved should improve with experience and review, which is why players having difficulty in excelling with a particular tank are encouraged to watch replays—both their own and those of others—and to seek the advice of other players to normalize their future perception as to what the vehicle, and they, are capable of.

While overextending an advance in the wrong tank will surely lead to destruction, overextending an advance in the right tank and calling for support can inspire the confidence needed to continue, as demonstrated in the T-150 example video below.

Tactical Level Comprehension

Assessing the tactical situation begins and ends with your HUD and minimap. Knowing how many tanks of what type remain in play for each team and where they are comprises almost all of this. This is an exercise in game theory, but players must remember, again, that humans are not rational actors. One cannot count on themselves or others to make optimal moves at all times, and one's own comprehension of a situation will always differ to some degree from others.

Optimal deployment certainly varies by map and by the forces arrayed upon it for the match, but several obvious factors should raise red flags. If friendly forces are arrayed in a dispersed column formation, the enemy can easily engage one tank at a time, destroy it, and move on to the next. By deploying so spread out in single file, supporting fire is scattered and ineffective, and the enemy's success will only embolden them to strike harder and faster at each successive tank, knowing that their opponents' attrition losses stack up very quickly. Conversely. a tight pack of tanks can direct withering fire at the enemy, but will impede their own movements, making easy targets for artillery strikes and ensuring multiple tanks are damaged by each shot. Understanding when your team is making tactical errors and moving to correct them is a vital part of the battle.

Our neighbors use searchlights, for they want more light. I tell you, Nikolai Pavlovich, we need more darkness.
— Ivan Konev

Another important part of comprehension is directing the battle's Schwerpunkt. If there are more than a few tanks remaining, figuring out how many opponents are left requires actually counting each minimap marker to account for invisible opponents. Those missing tanks could be anywhere; if only a few enemies are visible, then moving at flank speed without cover can be extremely dangerous. This lack of perception forces you to guess where to concentrate your forces or to set up a picket line to catch and slow the enemy advance. On the other hand, if a single tank experiences a great deal of fire from invisible adversaries, you know the enemy has a great concentration of force and at least one well-hidden spotter near that point, so other avenues may be lightly defended.

Comprehension involves deducing as much from what is not seen as from what is. Using this picture of the battle allows fast tanks to apply additional pressure at weak points in the enemy line rather than simply being a weak part of the battle line themselves. Well-timed flanking fire can shatter the confidence of advancing forces, and shifting the Schwerpunkt even 100 meters by threatening their vanguard tanks can throw an opposing force completely off balance. In the example AMX 13 90 match below, I apply pressure as an agent of chaos, flitting into and out of battle, lending fire at various places, intending to keep the enemy off balance and bolster my own forces.

Bringing It All together

A demonstration is usually worth hours of exposition, so I’ve recorded and annotated several examples of comprehension thought processes. I try to play conservatively, so I have fewer things to worry about on the field. Playing conservatively also helps keep my adrenaline down and lets me focus in a calculating way rather than relying as much on twitch for victory. I’ve chosen a variety of tanks for these examples to keep things from being one-dimensional and to show how important comprehension is in a variety of circumstances and play styles.

The ELC AMX and AMX 13 90 are both Fragile Speedsters, but I use that speed to tactically relocate, not to brawl. The T-34-85 is a reliable Everyman Hero tank that gives an incredible tactical flexibility. The T-150 is a Mighty Glacier-style spearhead tank as long as it isn’t low tier, so my example shows a lot of measured aggression.

YouTube: ELC AMX Example Match

Taking the example match in the ELC AMX first, you can follow my annotated thought process, where I try to show what’s going on in my head. During the match, I try to limit my field of engagement so I can filter out as much data as possible. There’s a great deal going on I’m not paying any attention to for several reasons:

  • There was no artillery, so I didn’t need to concern myself with cover that would protect from artillery.
  • I tried to keep close to hard cover, wrecks, and ridges, because the closer I am to those, the more I can ignore since I cannot be shot through those things.
  • I didn’t even really look at the field until the end of the match because I didn’t need to.
  • My play was cautious because my ELC fitting and crew are optimized for fire support.

YouTube: AMX 13 90 Example Match

In this example match in the AMX 13 90, I focus on passive scouting, targets of opportunity, and filling on where the line is weak. My first order of business is killing any scouts that get near due to the number of artillery on each side. One of our artillerists points out they want the team to calm down and just spot the enemy to let them do the work. This was good advice I used to my advantage near the end of the match.

YouTube: T-34-85 Example Match

My third example is in the T-34-85. This tank has my most experienced crew and is set up for sniping, stealth and spotting. In this match, I did not play spectacularly; even so, only the Hellcat made more XP than I did. Medium tank play must remain tactically flexible because forcing optimal play for yourself may deprive your team of your assistance when they really need it. I didn’t go berserk in this one, but I applied constant subtle pressure on the enemy forces.

YouTube: T-150 Example Match

This last example involves the T-150 spearheading an assault. The team was very cautious in this match and was willing to give up a great deal of ground in the hopes they could snipe the enemy. Sometimes this works, but usually you end up surrounded with nowhere to hide and your artillery goes down fast. Give up too much ground and you severely limit your own maneuver. I was forced to closely hug cover over multiple assaults, whereas I’m usually more mobile, even in the T-150.

In the third and final installment of my analysis of situational awareness in World of Tanks, we’ll examine projection, including how clues available in combat can help paint a picture of what to expect, and how that picture can lead friendly forces to outmaneuver and overcome.


Article image is copyrighted by Jason Freeny and is used with permission.

Video capture from battle playback was done using Debut Video Capture, which functioned flawlessly after Cam Studio started having many, many issues. It is free for non-commercial use but tricky as it unlocks when attempting to uninstall.

Text captions inserted with Microsoft Movie Maker. Since your copy of Windows is legal, you can download this free too.

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