Is It a Wargame? It Doesn’t Matter: Rigorous Wargames Versus Effective Wargaming

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We need to stop telling ourselves that the key to a better wargame is to add more detail. Some of the most rigorous, well-researched wargames I’ve participated in have struggled to create any lasting impact on the sponsors. Yet many of my ad hoc, quickly assembled, and lightly adjudicated wargames have created exactly the lasting impacts that we are looking for: sponsors thinking hard about future plans, policies, or objectives. Why? Because a rigorous wargame is usually not the same thing as effective wargaming. Without sponsors who understand the role of wargaming within their organization’s priorities, even a great wargame will often become a simple exercise of telling the players what they already know. The wargaming community can and should be better, but the community and its sponsors need to address the critical element that allows a wargame, whether deeply rigorous or hastily assembled, to also be effective wargaming: the ecosystem — the personal networks, cycle of research, follow-on activities, and continued intellectual engagement with the insights that emerge from it.

Yuna Huh Wong and Garrett Heath raise questions about the quality of defense wargames in these pages, noting, “Much of what the Department of Defense calls wargaming is not actually wargaming.” They are quite right — but that’s not necessarily a problem. Wargamers will debate till they are blue in the face about what is and is not a wargame. It does not matter. For those of us who deliver wargames to sponsors in the Department of Defense or other government agencies in support of current priorities, these semantics have little value. If the players or sponsors are better equipped at the end of the wargame to do the things they need to do, then there is value in the activity. Nothing else matters.



The success or failure of a wargame hinges on the quality of its ecosystem. Chris Dougherty provides some excellent clues about the ecosystem surrounding wargames within the Defense Department while advocating for the narrative element of wargames. He provides glimpses into the way sponsors and consumers interact with the lessons learned from wargames: “Insights [from wargames] don’t inform policy by simply existing — humans make the connection. Wargaming can create networks to promulgate and implement insights.” That network, both of the players in the game and those across the whole of the Defense Department, forms the ecosystem in which the impacts generated from a wargame — a strong measure of wargame quality — live or die. He goes on to criticize a common trait of that ecosystem: “Too often, however, games are echo chambers lacking sufficient diversity or adequate connections to the levers of policy.”

But it’s not the wargames themselves that are the echo chamber. Wargame designs, which others have argued for improving, have an existence largely independent of the players. But it is the players who bring the wargame to life, and quality of the wargame ecosystem determines whether the cognitive and creative momentum created by a wargame continues long enough and propagates far enough to have any real impact. A good wargame in a bad ecosystem creates minimal impact. A bad wargame in a good ecosystem still has the potential to create positive change.

Monopoly is a bad game in all the ways that we would measure wargame quality. But I would argue that I can use that bad game to teach people about business and real estate. A good facilitator having a conversation about the failures of that game can create the opportunity for the participants to walk away better informed, with an opportunity to impact their future decisions. This is because wargaming is experiential education. While Wong and Heath claim that there is little research “confirming wargaming’s ability to positively impact cognitive processes,” there is plenty of research on how experiential education — including gaming — enables learning.

Should we strive to make better, more rigorous, and data-rich wargames? Yes, absolutely. But not to the point that they take away from the quality of the players’ experience. If we begin assessing wargames for quality based on the accuracy of their inputs and their ability to include every domain while discounting them for the abstractions that are required to build the most impactful synthetic environment, we risk turning every wargame into The Campaign for North Africa, a board game so detailed and onerous that it is rumored to take 10 players nearly 1,500 hours to complete. It’s difficult enough to get the players you need to participate in a day- or week-long wargame, and we need to prove to them that their time is valuable. We risk losing the players’ active interest and involvement if we fill game days with tedium unconnected to their primary issues of interest. The most effective wargaming uses wargames that are simple enough to allow new players to rapidly engage with the content, limited in scope to the content for which it was designed, short enough to accommodate senior leaders’ busy schedules, and enjoyable enough to keep the players inside the game’s synthetic environment. Hiding the details in a computerized version of the game may not be a panacea to this problem.

So how do we balance sufficiently rigorous design with a playable and impactful wargaming experience? It starts with a good wargame ecosystem.

Sponsors need to understand the benefits and limitations of this analytic tool within their cycle of research. They need to be informed of the design and development process to ensure that the abstractions we include in our designs don’t whitewash one of their fundamental interests. They need to be involved and aware enough to head off potential negative learning. We designers need to be open and honest about the rigor and detail we include in (or exclude from) the wargame. And sponsors need to understand the role of the wargame within the broader structure of their analytic plan.

How then can we help create a positive ecosystem for wargaming in the Department of Defense? It starts with knowing the difference between the wargame and the ecosystem in which it lives. At CNA, we start every new wargame discussion by asking the sponsor three sets of questions:

  1. What is your organization’s desired outcome as a result of wargaming? What do you want wargaming to enable your organization to do?
  2. What objective should players pursue in the wargame? What things do you want the players to produce during its execution? What do you want to have in hand at the game’s conclusion?
  3. What constraints (“must do”), restraints (“can’t do”), and conditions (“should do,” boundaries) will limit the execution of the wargame?

These three questions help shape the sponsor’s understanding of wargame execution. The first question, about the outcome, speaks to the ecosystem in which the wargame insights will live. It forces the sponsors to think about the wargame in the context of their enduring or pressing priorities and the impacts that the wargame will have in the long run. The final two questions are common across most wargaming organizations because they give you the concrete facts you need to know when designing a wargame: What do you want this wargame to do, and what resources do I have to do it with? But we have found that introducing the first question really helps sponsors shape their concept of the wargame. It forces them to think about the wargame ecosystem of their organization and decide how best they can leverage the insights to create real impacts.

Wargaming is not a monolithic activity that needs to be finely honed to fit within the Department of Defense. Wargaming is a malleable, multifaceted shapeshifter that becomes exactly what you need it to be. If you need a highly rigorous wargame with verified combat resolution tables, terrain, and movement rates confirmed by exercises, and data collection and reporting instruments that have been rigorously validated by modern social science research, wargaming can be that. But if you need a reason to put a bunch of people around a table because it’s the only way you can get them to talk to each other, wargaming can be that too. Tensions arise when the wargame ecosystem of the Defense Department sees one of those events and mistakes it for the other. The ecosystem needs to progress in its understanding of wargames in their myriad forms and increase its literacy with regard to wargaming outputs. The Department of Defense should embrace wargames as an opportunity to learn, not an answer to be found.



Jeremy Sepinsky is CNA’s lead wargame designer. He has designed and facilitated dozens of wargames at Navy and Joint commands, as well as for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense – Policy and the Joint Staff. His wargames help strategic decision-makers understand the broad context of actions, as well as the tactical impacts and requirements that those decisions elicit. His recent wargames covered broad topics such as logistics, personnel organization, command and control, cyberspace operations, space operations, national strategy, international emulation, technology planning, special operations, and homeland defense.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of CNA, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Flickr (Photo by Tom Hilton)