The Acceptable Face of Wargaming: Risk-free, Cost-free Combat Leadership?
By Dom Wiejak
Wargaming gets a bad rep. Like reading doctrine, or wearing yesterday’s underpants, it is not something you necessarily want to admit to in public. We are coloured by our predjudices; wargaming is either the horror step of Course of Action development or something that involves buying tiny soldiers and spending weeks painting them.
That was certainly my view prior to undertaking a course on the design and use of wargames within training last summer. Having spent nearly a year designing a game for training Divisional level deception, I can say I am changed.
Wargaming presents an excellent vehicle for developing experience in thinking and decision making. What is more, is it does this with little cost, little risk and resource requirement. While I am lucky to have some future time in the Army left to incorporate wargaming into training, I cannot help thinking about the opportunities that I have missed where the use of games could have significantly helped develop those around me.
What is Wargaming?
Leaving behind the spectre of dice and rulebooks for a moment it is worth first considering wargaming through its definition:
A scenario-based warfare model in which the outcome and sequence of events affect, and are affected by, the decisions made by the players. (NATO Red Teaming Guide)
Sounds relatively simple, right? Yet there are a whole manner of formats, types and levels of game which one can play.
On one hand, there are very high-level analytical wargames, used by very clever people to understand the strategic impact of specific activities and the ‘course of action’ wargames I have already mentioned, which many readers will be well accustomed to. Both of these types of wargame are designed to provide information to a decision-maker by playing out numerous versions of the same scenario in an effort to influence future actions.
But in this article I will discuss a different type of game: training wargames. These differ from the other type of wargame in that they provide the players with decision-making experience. They allow a player, or players, to immerse themselves in a situation and, by following a set of rules, develop a situation until one, the other, or neither wins. These types of games are sometimes produced specifically for a military audience, but more often than not they are adapted from commercially available board games and consist of some rules, a map, some dice and some counters.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It is not just the poor perception of wargamers that stops soldiers getting involved in wargaming. Wargaming also has another, more serious, criticism it must face up to: no matter what choices one makes when playing a wargame, the outcome will never fully represent reality. And thus critics argue that if wargaming cannot predict the future, then what good is it.
But it is this inability to predict exactly what might happen that is exactly the reason why training with wargames is good. It gives experience in decision-making and teaches us to deal with consequences.
Eisenhower’s quote sums up the point of using wargaming in training. The important thing is not to have predicted the exact situation, but that your brain is exercised to considering the situation. Wargaming develops a player’s ability to think. They are required to collect information, judge its relevance and then decide on a course of action. Wargames are also built with specific concepts in mind. Whether it is a section level game which needs suppression and manoeuvre for success, or a strategic level game about maintaining operational reach across Europe during World War Two, success is only achieved by applying theories and doctrine to the unfolding situation.
The clue to wargaming’s other advantage is in its name – it is a game and games are adversarial. Wargaming teaches players to outdo each other and to overcome chaos and friction. During a wargame everything is trying to unhinge your plan, from the opposing player to the randomness of the dice.
Together these two factors combine to make wargaming perfect for teaching. The immersive nature of the scenario, the deep involvement with the game’s concepts and the competitive urge to replay an adversary and do better next time all create an excellent learning environment. Repeatedly regaining understanding and making decisions while everything in the game seeks to unhinge you: these are mental ‘sets and reps’ that build up cognitive fitness.
How do you use Wargaming?
The best way to use wargaming is to bridge the gap between theoretical training and a full-scale exercise. Wargames can be set up with little preparation and provide a great resource for short notice training. The competitive nature means that players want to keep on training, in turn reinforcing theoretical lessons head of carrying out training in the field. They are the thinking-person’s back pocket lesson.
And like all the best back pocket lessons, training with wargames requires little physical resource. Bucking the trend for computers and synthetic training, a wargame only requires some tables, chairs and paper. When you have not got banks of computers and a small army of IT savvy enablers, wargaming allows you to push on without worrying about whether you will need to reboot the game halfway through.
Wargaming is also a great way of conducting training when the purse strings are tight. Commercial games are widely available on the internet, they cover all theatres, all levels and all forms of operations. If that is not enough, the Defence Learning Environment hosts Camberley Kreigspiel, a completely free Wargame format, designed for the British Army and easily developed to meet your own training objectives.
Who can use Wargaming?
The short answer is, of course, anyone at any rank. The accessibility of wargames provides a significant freedom to those trying to incorporate them into training. With a read of the rules, a trial play for whoever is running the training (many games feature a tutorial within the rule book) and sometimes a YouTube video, anyone is capable of using a wargame to deliver training.
In terms of the audience, the variety of wargames available mean that almost any target audience can be reached. Unlike in a simulation or field environment where only a few get to be involved in decision making, every player within a wargame can be drawn into the chain. The technical knowledge required by players can be varied in designing the training objectives, and so wargaming gives the opportunity for people to be pushed out of their comfort zone and gain decision making experience within an environment to which they would not normally be exposed.
The ability to place people outside of their comfort zone is enabled by the ‘risk-free’ training environment that wargaming presents. There is no requirement for safety staff, no one is going to get a non-freezing cold injury and most importantly, no one is going to suffer reputational damage if a plan they play out in a wargame goes wrong.
How to get the most out of your Wargaming?
I am by no means a deep expert in wargaming. I would struggle even to regard myself as having dipped more than a toe in the sea of wargaming. The Ministry of Defence Wargaming Handbook is an excellent resource if you want to learn more. From a personal point of view, if I have persuaded you that wargaming is an opportunity, the following may help you get the most out of your training:
Have an objective. Understanding early on what the objective of your training is, is crucial to both choosing the right wargame to play and developing the talking points within the game. The internet is, as ever, a great source of information on commercially available games, and what they aim to model and represent. Alternatively, Camberley Kreigspiel, and STRIKE (made by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) very accurately depict modern British operations and can easily be adapted to take place on ground of your choosing. For example, they could be used to represent Archers Post for those about to deploy to Kenya.
Link it with other activity. Most commercial wargames have a grounding in some sort of historical operation. Consider a battlefield study. Would you rather develop your understanding and interest in the event through a PowerPoint heavy lecture, or would you rather refight the battle against your peers? Could you have done better than the historical commanders you are about to study?
Change the rules. Do not forget that these games are designed for a commercial, ‘fun’ audience. They might not immediately give you the exact training vehicle you are after. Rules, however, are made to be broken. If you are trying to develop mission command, then why not enforce ‘radio silence’, preventing players from talking to one another save for specific moments. Or limit fires and air power to concentrate thought on how to achieve effects with specific capabilities.
After Action Review (AAR). Of everything in this article, this might be the paragraph I most want readers to take away. Brilliant training is only as good as what you learn. It is imperative that the lessons learned are not lost in the ‘fun’ of an adversarial wargame. As mentioned earlier, wargaming offers players a reputational risk-free environment. Make sure the AAR is structured so players realise this, give them the understanding of why things happened the way they did, and the opportunity to play again and try something different.
Wargaming need not induce visions of fantasy space robots, nor a cold sweat and flashbacks to a painful Combat Estimate. Wargames are a way to build experience in making decisions while under pressure from a competitive, adversarial opponent. The wide range of commercially available products means games can be tailored to deliver required training objectives, and the games themselves can be run without any additional resources or instructional qualification. A cheap, resource free, way of improving thinking and decision making – what is not to like?
The Wargamer’s Bookshelf
The commercial wargame market can be an intimidating place to start out, especially for those with little experience. What follows is a (very) short list of games, and some ideas for their use in supporting training:
Mission Command. Kriegspiel is the original wargame. Designed in the 19th Century to train Prussian Officers in decision making, the game format is still relevant today. This is the perfect game for those looking to improve decision making, communication, quick orders delivery and place people in unfamiliar leadership roles. Rules for a modern incarnation, developed at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Camberley Kriegspiel) are available on the Army Knowledge Exchange, or Amazon for those without access.
Platoon Level Actions. There are hundreds of Platoon and Company level games on the market. A recent release, GMT Games’ Last Hundred Yards, is one which forces players to use suppression and manoeuvre effectively to close with their objective. It is, however, a game which needs some practice before playing! An alternative game is Infantry Combat. Rather than the traditional game format, it is in fact a story, which forces the reader to make decisions to further the game narrative.
Unit Level Actions. In the main article I mentioned STRIKE, a game designed and developed by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to support the implementation of the Strike Brigade Concept. This game is quite literally tailor made for those wanting to model modern British Armoured Infantry, or Strike, Units. For those wanting the additional challenge of operating in built up terrain, Urban Operations throws the complexity of multi-storey, underground and civilian elements into the gameplay, based around a variety of historical scenarios.
Operational and Strategic Level. Higher level games bring with them models absent from tactical games. Logistics, combined arms and varied objectives all add to the challenge in these games. The large number of units involved at this level also allow for teams of players to be broken into a ‘chain of command’. GMT’s Normandy and Holland 44 put all these elements within well-known historical scenarios. The Next War series of games are their modern equivalent featuring land, air, naval and cyber components – though with the additional components comes a higher level of complexity. At the strategic level, GMT’s Labyrinth exposes players to the spread of fundamentalist terrorism across the world.
Something a little different. Decision making. Communication. Balancing multiple stakeholders’ priorities. All these elements feature in Aftershock, a game which simulates intervention in a fictional humanitarian disaster zone.
If you are interested in more on using models and games to develop your command and leadership, read MODEX and Mission Command by Des Fitzgerald.