Six Rules for Wargaming: The Lessons of Millennium Challenge ‘02


For over a decade, those of us who teach wargaming and red teaming have used Millennium Challenge ‘02 (MC ‘02) as a poster child for how not to design or run a wargame. Micah Zenko offered the most comprehensive account to date of MC ’02 earlier this week here at War on the Rocks. The game was conducted by the now-defunct Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and the credibility of the command never recovered. One of us (Gary) was a member of the MC ‘02 red team and extensively researched it in preparing his course on alternative analysis at George Washington University. The other (Dave) was a member of DoD’s Defense Adaptive Red Team in support of MC ‘02.

The game was an attempt to test three JFCOM concepts: effects-based operations, rapid decisive operations, and standing Joint Force headquarters. All three were tested in smaller venues and had such significant issues associated with them that independent analysts recommended they be scrapped altogether. JFCOM’s response was to get rid of the independent analysts and have its own give them better answers. That should have been the first clue for the organization’s senior leadership that they had a serious problem, but the flag officer leadership of JFCOM had no experience in either gaming or experimentation. Consequently, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

We offer our observations meant to give those who try to design such events in the future, and those who sponsor such efforts, some cautionary advice. There are six rules in wargame design. JFCOM batted a thousand in violating all of them.

1. Never try to mix a seminar wargame, an experiment, and a real world exercise. You will end up with too many variables to analyze any single one properly.

The differences between the three types of events are widely accepted throughout the Department of Defense, and are provided by the U.S. Naval War College:

Peter Perla, author of The Art of Wargaming, defines a wargame as: “A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operations of actual forces, in which the flow of events affects and is affected by decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides.”

The Naval War College considers an exercise to be an “activity designed to rehearse or practice, with actual forces or assigned staff, specific sets of procedures” and an experiment as a repeatable scientific method designed to test a hypothesis.

As Zenko discusses in his account of MC ‘02, when the red team sank the blue American fleet, it was reconstituted several times so that the real world exercises could continue. Each time the blue force was reconstituted, red team capabilities were taken away until the blue team could finally hold its own. The reason given was that the live exercises had to continue. The control (white) cell promised red that the results of the previous runs would be noted in analysis. That did not happen.

2. Never allow the people whose concept is being tested to run a game. In MC ‘02, the JFCOM concepts personnel oversaw the white, red, and blue cells. There was no firewall between the concept developers and the game directors.  If the red team did something to embarrass the concept, the results could be overruled.

3. Never allow concept writers to run the analysis. This is akin to allowing students to grade their own tests, and that is what happened in MC ‘02. No independent analysis was ever released by the command.

4. Never claim that a single wargame has validated anything. Wargames will identify issues, and a series of them may fully discredit a truly bad concept. The Germans were still wargaming what became known as blitzkrieg to refine it even after they executed the concept in Poland. The result was an overhaul of their war plans for what became the successful invasion of France. The Naval War College tested the concepts that eventually won the Second World War against Japan in innumerable wargames. The word “validation” should not be used until after the war is won.

After MC ’02 ended, the JFCOM deputy commander claimed that the three concepts being “tested” were “validated.” This is what led the red team leader, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, to go public on the flawed design and execution of the wargame.

5. A major wargame should be part of a program that lasts at least one year. No one-to-two-week game can adequately address all the objectives normally associated with concept development and experimentation. Elements of these objectives, as well as game design, methodology, and administration, should be put to the test in what are called “shaping events.” The earlier potential problem areas are identified and addressed, the better.

MC ‘02 did indeed have numerous shaping events to include a dry run (basically a rehearsal) that included a thinking and adaptive red team led by Van Riper. This event should have set off alarm bells as to what was in store for the blue team during the primetime event. Unfortunately, the results of the rehearsal were ignored and because these events were all seminar (conference-style) in nature, the ramifications of combining a wargame, an experiment, and an exercise were never addressed. Again, just as in the main effort, the concept developers should never run the analysis in shaping events.

6. Beware empowering defense contractors who work for concept developers and game designers, and “good idea fairies.” The former have a vested interest in pleasing their sponsors and the latter attempt to jump on the bandwagon as a program progresses and begins to garner increasing senior interest and press. For most of JFCOM’s brief history, contractors outnumbered active and reserve duty personnel as well as Department of Defense civilians. Contractors’ primary loyalties were to their government sponsor and to their company’s program manager, not to fulfilling MC ‘02’s stated objectives.

“Good idea fairies” come in many forms — active, civilian, and contractor — and have but one objective — using your efforts, grunt work, and money to highlight and “validate” their pet projects and/or wares.

No two games are ever alike and the six rules address the authors’ wargaming experience from MC ‘02. They are not sufficient for success, but provide a necessary starting point from which successful events will flow.


Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who was the Director of Marine Corps Wargaming and served as Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. He was a member of the Defense Adaptive Red Team and served as a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dave Dilegge, Editor-in-Chief of the Small Wars Journal, is a retired Marine Intelligence and Counterintelligence Officer. He supported the Marine Corps-Joint Forces Command’s Joint Urban Warrior Program as part of the Marine Corps Wargaming Division and was a member of DoD’s Defense Adaptive Red Team, both as a defense contractor.


Photo credit: Seaman Michael Strand, U.S. Navy