REPORT: Introduction to Defense Wargaming

Students at “Introduction to Defense Wargaming”. Photo Credit: Sebastian Bae


By: Olivia Letts, Reporter

On October 14, 2018, roughly 50 SSP students had their first exposure to wargaming at “Introduction to Defense Wargaming,” a two-part learning seminar presented by Sebastian Bae, who is a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, as well as a former Marine and SSP alumnus. The first session featured a presentation outlining the fundamental principles of wargaming as well as its strengths and limitations. The second session gave students the opportunity to engage in hands-on gameplay through several commercial wargames. The seminar was designed to help students, ranging from the novice to the hobbyist gamer, to learn about wargaming as a methodology of learning and analysis.

Wargames have a long history of influencing strategy and military policy. In ancient China, GO, a boardgame utilizing black and white stones on a 19 by 19 board, was used to foster strategic thinking. Similarly, chess has been used to train war commanders in Europe. However, the modern version of wargaming is frequently ascribed to the Kriegsspiel, a Prussian wargame designed to train commanders and explore operational military strategy. In the United States, the US Naval War college leveraged a series of wargames, called Plan Orange, to examine and refine the naval strategy for the Pacific theater during the Second World War. In 2015, a memo by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work revitalized wargaming within the defense community, committing significant energy and resources to wargaming.

Wargaming is now an extremely important tool for helping to solve and understand real conflicts and is utilized by governments around the globe. While its most well-known professional uses involve the military, wargaming can also inform other policy arenas, ranging from disaster response to infectious disease control. Bae argues that one of the most helpful components of wargaming is that it incorporates the human factor, accounting for decision-making processes rather than relying only on probability. The key phrase in this regard is the fog of war, because wargaming realistically reveals that “no plan survives the first contact with the enemy.”

When envisioning wargaming, most people might think of traditional adversarial wargames where two sides engage in simulated combat. However, in his presentation, Bae explained how wargaming is used for a wide variety of purposes, such as educating commanders, looking at new military concepts, assessing operations, and devising new solutions. Wargames can take many different forms besides the standard-map exercise on which combat units engage. The format of any wargame is closely aligned to its research objective. For example, matrix-style wargames are designed to analyze complex problem sets such as counterinsurgency and artificial intelligence in a structured manner. Other wargames involve intensive roleplaying, such as command-post exercises for military staffs and crisis response games for foreign service officers.

Bae outlined some of both the limitations and benefits of wargaming. Wargames are flexible and adaptable to a wide range of problems and can be specifically tailored to examine specific components of a problem. They are also dynamic, which means players influence each other’s decision-making process. However, wargames are often limited by the number of iterations and level of abstraction. “Wargames are never predictive; they’re never final,” said Bae, emphasizing that the objective is to derive insights, data points, or trends. A single iteration of a wargame provides just one data point, which is not conclusive. At the same time, he commented that, “when you only focus on strategic, operational, or tactical, you give up focus on the others by focusing on one, blurring them.”

When asked what it takes to be a wargamer, Bae quoted Peter Perla, saying that “the wargamer has to be three people in one: the architect, the artist, and the analyst.”

Real-life data is incorporated into wargames, and heavy research goes into designing the scenario and its mechanics. But it also involves the inventiveness of roleplaying and creativity. Bae, who has been a major contributing columnist for Foreign Policy Magazine and has written articles for various publications (including GSSR), cited his storytelling ability as playing a role in his career transition when he joined the Marine Corps Wargaming Division. There, he worked on designing wargame scenarios and subsequent assessment, where his storytelling and writing ability lent itself to the artisanal and analyst aspect of the field. Now, he works on wargames focused on emerging technologies and strategy and doctrine for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

To illustrate the real-world effects of wargames, Bae presented a recent example in which wargaming was used by RAND and the Department of Defense community to explore NATO’s defense of vulnerable members in the Baltics after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He referred to “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank” as an excellent example of a wargame study. The project led to clear findings and incorporated a fusion of research and traditional gaming principles.

After presenting this example, Bae explained the process for designing a wargame, in which you:

  1. Define objectives
  2. Research the problem
  3. Define the level of abstraction
  4. Develop the scenario
  5. Define the decision space for players and game mechanics
  6. Construct the game materials
  7. Play test
  8. Refine.

The second session took place one week later from the first, on October 21. This time around, participants could play one of several games offered, each monitored by a different “game master.” The games available were Game of Thrones Risk, Axis and Allies 1941, Memoir 44, and Friedrich.

One can always use a break from the cold, hard realism of historical scenarios, so I opted to pander to my fantastical side and chose Game of Thrones Risk. As a die-hard fan of Tyrion, I played the Lannisters and got my Clausewitzian fix while razing the map of Westeros with my peers. My friend furtively slipped me a sheet of paper in the beginning asking for an alliance – this certainly affected my decision-making, though not necessarily to my benefit.

I bumbled my way through one round of the game without fully comprehending the goings-on, all while still having a great time. Despite some decent advantages and battle victories that I enjoyed, I still somehow wound up with 0 victory points (10 are required to win) – all because I was too focused on the details and short-term gains, without considering how my moves would serve the larger objectives required to actually get points and win the game. This reminded me of what I have learned about real military campaigns, where winning the battle doesn’t always translate to winning the wider war. The wargaming knowledge I picked up from the first session of the seminar shed a whole different light on the way I perceived the game.

Another source of frustration but also enjoyment in the game was its complexity, which I found dizzying at times – there are several sets of cards involved in Game of Thrones Risk, and these decks introduce various bonuses and game-changing scenarios with each turn. In wargaming, as Bae explained, this is a common conundrum – building intricate worlds will add a lot of richness to the gameplay, but the drawback can be that this reduces playability. He described this as an inherent tension present within wargaming, which should be “rigorous but playable.”

It is easy to get into wargames as a hobbyist, but pursuing it as a clear-cut career is a different story. For those who are fascinated by the practical uses of wargaming and want to break into the field, Bae has several suggestions. There are many books you can read to familiarize yourself with wargaming, and Bae specifically recommends reading Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming: A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists, and Philip Sabin’s book Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games. There are also many websites and blogs dedicated to wargaming, such as Paxsims, which contains a myriad of information for wargamers.

In addition to reading up on the subject, Bae asserts that it is important for budding wargamers to start playing commercial games – and yes, those include Game of Thrones Risk. He emphasized that being exposed to different game styles and approaches enriches a wargamer of every experience level. He said it is very common for professional wargamers to borrow elements from commercial gaming, and vice versa. Lastly, Bae advises finding a mentor, someone who has ties to or is in the wargaming field and can draw you into the professional arena. A mentor can expose you to events, news, and more extensive knowledge relating to wargaming.

As for the future of wargaming, Bae would like to see a new generation of wargamers being developed and trained. There are many older, experienced wargamers, but currently the field is lacking a reliable “supply chain” of young wargamers and individuals exposed to and interested in pursuing wargaming jobs. Bae said that that wargamers tend to come from former military, operations research, and political science backgrounds, which all lend important skills. But he believes diverse perspectives and new ways of thinking are always needed to build better wargames. Logic? Check. Creativity? Check. Research skills? Check, check, check – let us navigate the fog of war.

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