Wargames can become the baseline for further exploration of a problem if they are properly designed, supported, analyzed, and acted on. Furthermore, they build personal and organizational trust through the friction of an immersive and adversarial learning environment. The shared experiences and learning that takes place among team members can be the most important output, preparing them for the stress, friction, and chaos of combat.
This team building is one of the underappreciated aspects of wargaming. Using diverse teams creates an immersive and human approach to attacking tough problems. Team learning depends on three key aspects of the games: inputs, process, and (potential) outputs.
Inputs and Process
A critical part of designing an effective wargame is getting the people right. Subject-matter experts and practitioners with a diversity of backgrounds and experience make up the lion’s share of inputs. As the United Kingdom’s Wargaming Handbook explains, teams need to be grouped with the correct amount of understanding and knowledge, skills, and abilities, including “opposing players representing active, thinking, and adapting adversaries and competitors; wargame controllers using the level of threat as a variable; and a Red Team that challenges assumptions, and in conjunction with the wargame controllers, can introduce friction.”1
The Marine Corps Operational Planning Team Leader’s Guide asserts that bringing together a diverse and specialized team creates the opportunity for a “disciplined approach to planning that is systemic, coordinated, and thorough [to] consider all relevant factors, reduce omissions, and share information.”2 It takes so long to create, deliver, analyze, and report out a wargame because the process of assembling the proper personnel inputs is lengthy and intense. Shortcuts reduce their quality.
Another key part of the inputs in the wargame design phase is precise direction from the sponsor (typically, a senior commander who wants to test a concept) on how to define the problem, purpose, and objective of the wargame.
Process helps create chance and friction, optimizing an immersive and competitive wargame that remains focused on the original vision and guidance (more on this below). This helps assess the advantages and disadvantages of proposed operational concepts and creates a better appreciation of how an opponent sees the fight, thinks, and adapts in seeking their own victory conditions. Without a good design process, the game will bear sour fruit, and the resulting analysis will be poor.
In execution, wargame teams—whether formed beforehand (battle staffs) or in situ—come together in an activity tailored to answer a specific set of research questions. It is important that the analysts are just as much specialists and experts in a diversity of fields as the players and adjudicators. (Game designers ignore criticality of analyst team development and employment at significant risk to effective outputs from the wargame, no matter how brilliantly executed.)
Break the Team to Build It
How a battle staff conducts a “home” game differs from how it will conduct an “away” game in a combat environment. Moving the game outside the command post to a tent farm will change the internal day-to-day dynamic of an existing team. De facto staff relationships and processes will be challenged in the game’s competitive environment. This is not a shortcoming—in fact, one strength of wargames is that they reveal fault lines, gaps, and seams in a staff’s coherence and ability to attain the commander’s desired effects against a competitive, adaptive opponent.
Wargames are abstractions designed to get at certain key problems, not the war as it might actually be fought. If a Monopoly player were a realtor, for example, the player’s real-life business processes would be of little use—no one requires a quitclaim deed to purchase Park Place—but understanding the effects of putting a hotel there is still of value. The toughest decision in wargame design is what to leave out, not what to include.
In the lead-up to a wargame, two sets of teams coalesce to execute it. The wargame developmental team is the home team, and the battle staff, Red Cell, senior mentors, and others form the visiting team. Both teams learn much before the game begins, and even more as the wargame unfolds as well as in the analytical aftermath. Teams suffer if they miss the opportunity to learn at any of these stages.
Outputs come in at least two varieties. The first, ideally, is a better wargame that creates, if not new knowledge, then at least a new level of shared understanding of a complex problem.
Second, properly identified, addressed, and understood lessons encountered during the wargame become lessons attacked by postgame activities. This understanding, captured in both experiential game play and follow-on analytic reports, informs not only those who took part in the game, but also commanders and staffs throughout the organization.
Some of those lessons can identify requirements for updated “intelligence preparation of the battlespace” products, planning support tools, refined staff estimates (including logistics estimates of supportability), and potential branches and sequels for further exploration. Outputs do not include validation of specific weapon platforms or absolute predictive assessments of enemy behavior. (Consider British expectations for the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942, for example.) Most wargames produce more questions than they do answers, and both sets of teams learn by doing, a fact that makes iteration of wargames more challenging than initially meets the eye. Analysis aims to capture all the lessons, from the literature review and wargame design preparations through game play, postgame plenary sessions, and observations by senior mentors.
Five Months in 1905
A good example of this is the British Strategic War Game of 1905, run by the British General Staff between January and May 1905, umpired by James Grierson, an expert on the German Army.3
There were three sides to this complex, five-month wargame: Colonel Charles Edward Callwell played the British commander-in-chief; William Robertson played the German commander-in-chief; and Arthur Lynden-Bell played that role for the Belgian Army.4 Grierson had served as the British military attaché to Berlin from 1896 to 1900, where he experienced German Kriegsspiel—wargame.
The scenario was:
War had broken out between France and Germany on 1 January 1905. At this time neither side had the help of allies. Germany had taken the initiative with an offensive against the French defenses between Sedan and Belfort; but after two months when these attacks had failed, had decided to outflank the French by passing north through Belgium with six Army Corps, three cavalry divisions, and two Reserve Army Corps. . . . It was assumed that Britain would be brought into the war by this violation of Belgian neutrality.5
Three thematic questions from UK Prime Minister Alfred Balfour outlined the problem, purpose, and objective of the wargame:
If Germany or France violated Belgian territory, what advantages might they get? . . . What level of effective opposition could be expected from [the] Belgian army in the event of German invasion? . . . How long would it take to deploy two British Army Corps on the Continent?6
The rules from an 1896 British wargame were adapted, and German cycling maps of Belgium were used to ensure detailed knowledge of even small roads.
The game produced at least two notable outcomes. The first was a British and French realization that, unless they integrated their planning efforts, there would be little hope of stopping a German assault.7 Grierson, based on his detailed knowledge of the Germans, employed an almost perfect prediction of the Schlieffen Plan (used in 1914), and it was quite effective.
Second, the planners estimated they would have only 23 days to get the entire British force onto the Continent. A review of available shipping and expected operational capacity (similar to today’s joint reception staging and onward integration process), however, forecast at least 34 days to get the force moved and employed.7
One output of the game was that, in 1906, the British and French began joint planning sessions.9 The resulting plans were used by the British War Cabinet in the summer of 1914 to make the critical decisions that committed Britain to war.10 The British Expeditionary Force forward echelons were in combat on 23 August 1914, just 19 days after war was declared on 4 August.11 The British ability to deploy force decisive enough to prevent the Germans from turning the flank or reaching exposed ports along the English Channel was a direct result of the 1905 strategic wargame.
Building Teams and Trust
A different sort of output is not quantifiable, but it is vitally important qualitatively: the relationships among the players. Do players better understand each other afterward? The understanding among leaders, both horizontally and vertically, is critical to effective command—and even more so given the complexity of alliance and coalition command. One advantage of analytic activities—whether wargames of current war plans or staff rides to consider historical case studies—is participants learn how others will react, employ their forces, and adapt rapidly in the face of a thinking opponent. Competitive activities—from whitewater raft races to paintball to wargames—conducted at all levels in small groups on a frequent basis help turn this knowledge into trust.
The ineffectiveness of command between Lieutenant General Edmund Allenby and Field Marshal Douglas Haig in the spring offensive of 1917 could be attributed, at least in part, to Allenby and Haig having spent little time serving together earlier in their careers and failing to infer and understand what the other meant and intended to do. Personal relationships built between French and British staff officers prior to war (1906–14) had not translated into a cohesive team understanding between French and British generals, or even inside
the British Expeditionary Force. Nevertheless, just a year later, the British, French, and U.S. commanders, fighting against reinforced German forces, cracked the line and compelled Germany to surrender without attacking Berlin.
While many factors contributed to this victory, it was the map exercises and wargames—conducted with the actual senior commanders participating even as their forces were engaged in combat—that prepared them for the German spring offensive and the Allied counteroffensive that won the war.12 In World War II, Admirals Raymond Spruance, William “Bull” Halsey, Ernest King, and Chester Nimitz did have cohesion. They all went through the Naval War College and participated in the numbered Fleet Problems (albeit not at the same time) by which Navy-wide shared understanding was fostered and communicated.13
Historical case studies and staff rides, while not wargames per se, can yield similar results. At one time, students at the U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting played a scenario commanding British forces in North America fighting against the Continentals from 1775 to 1781. A look through the other end of the kaleidoscope yields a very different sight picture and gives players an expanded warfighting perspective.
Likewise, a staff ride to Mantua and Marengo, Italy, shows young officers war from the perspective of Napoleon and his marshals, or a visit to Caen, France, with maps and orders from 1944’s British Operation Goodwood provides young, aspiring commanders a measure of sympathy for General Bernard Law Montgomery. Participants, through active discussion with their peers, gain not only a better understanding of the complexities of combat but also a much better fingerspitzengefühl—“fingertip feel”—for their peers that can be invaluable when the shooting starts.
When it comes to preparing for a real fight, there’s no such thing as “only a game.”
1. Ministry of Defence, Wargaming Handbook (Shrivenham, UK: Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 2017), 21.
2. Marine Air Ground Task Force Staff Training Program, Operational Planning Team Leader’s Guide MSTP Pamphlet 5-0.2 (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps, 2001), 27.
3. Christopher Yi-Han Choy, British War-Gaming, 1870–1914 (London, Kings College: 2013), 23–25.
4. COL C. E. Callwell, RA, also wrote Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice based on British experiences in the 19th century. It was first published in 1896, with a second edition in 1899 and a third edition in 1906.
5. Quoted in Choy, British War-Gaming, 1870–1914, 25–26.
6. Strategic War Game of 1905, www.revolvy.com/page/Strategic-War-Game-of-1905?stype=feedback&cmd=all&w_uid=0. Of note, the primary source document for much of the scholarly research is the National Archives WO 33/364, “Records of a Strategic Wargame, 1905,” which has not been digitized and is available only for review at the United Kingdom Archives in Kew.
7. Richard Dunley, “Sir John Fisher and the Policy of Strategic Deterrence, 1904–1908,” War in History 22, no. 2 (2015): 161; see also William J. Philpott, “The Making of the Military Entente, 1904–14: France, the British Army, and the Prospect of War,” The English Historical Review 128, no. 534 (2013): 1155–59.
8. Choy, British War-Gaming, 1870–1914, 26. For further explanation of Royal Navy thinking in the early weeks of World War I, see also Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, Jutland 1916: Death in the Grey Wastes (London, Cassell: 2003), 25–28.
9. John W. Coogan and Peter F. Coogan, “The British Cabinet and the Anglo-French Staff Talks, 1905–1914: Who Knew What and When Did He Know It?” Journal of British Studies 24, no. 1 (1985): 110–14.
10. Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (Verso, London: 2014), 33, 52, 138.
11. Gary Sheffield, The Chief; Douglas Haig and the British Army (London, Aurum Press: 2011), 67–69.
12. Sheffield, The Chief, 261–62.
13. Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923–1940 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press: 2010), and Walter R. Borneman, The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2012).