Put Educational Wargaming in the Hands of the Warfighter
Plenty of wargaming articles quote famous testimonies by Adm. Chester Nimitz or 19th-century Prussian general Karl von Muffling on the critical role wargames play in military success. But it’s often forgotten that the celebrated wargames of Nimitz’s and von Muffling’s eras were designed to be educational, accessible, iterative, and played at the unit of action. Wargaming today, by contrast, risks becoming the exclusive domain of select officers and leadership within the Beltway. And when wargaming is concentrated in a handful of select institutions, it increasingly becomes susceptible to the historical boom and bust cycle where benefits and experience can be quickly lost.
To truly harness the potential of wargaming and prepare for future challenges, the defense community needs to revitalize and expand educational wargaming at the tactical echelons. Wargaming should reclaim its historical position as a critical educational tool for the entire force. As a professional wargame designer and instructor, I have an interest in the growth and success of wargaming. But this article does not argue for a singular wargame or technology, and certainly not just my own. Instead, I believe that for joint educational wargaming to succeed, the Department of Defense should establish a dedicated educational wargaming fund, foster a diverse wargaming ecosystem, and embrace new technologies.
Wargaming as Intellectual Exercise
When do enlisted leaders and officers truly exercise their tactical and operational decision-making? Beyond actual battlefield deployments, such opportunities are exceedingly rare. Training exercises, such as Resolute Dragon, are designed to be technological demonstrations, skill-based training, and collaboration venues. They are scripted and managed — as they should be. However, for most participants, these training exercises are not meaningful opportunities for intellectual improvement. Educational wargaming, however, provides leaders with the opportunity to exercise their intellectual muscles — to wrestle with an active adversary, to adapt to unexpected challenges, and to explore new avenues of thinking.
The principal value of educational wargaming is not found in hyper-realistic adjudication or eye-catching visualization, but in repeatedly facing — and even failing — decision-making challenges. In The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dörner argues, “Geniuses are geniuses by birth, whereas the wise gain their wisdom through experience. And it seems to me that the ability to deal with problems in the most appropriate way is the hallmark of wisdom rather than genius.” In a wargame, failure is not final, but merely an opportunity to learn a new method of success. The first time a tactical leader exercises their independent decision-making under stress should not be on the battlefield. If the joint force truly wants experienced decision-makers across echelons, it should embrace intellectual exercise as a constant and continuous endeavor. Just as physical muscles are strained, stretched, and strengthened through physical training, the joint force should aim to leverage educational wargames as practice arenas for decision-making — providing mental reps and sets for a better-prepared force.
Indeed, the value of iterative, experiential learning through educational wargaming has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout its history. In World War II, the Western Tactical Approaches Unit leveraged educational wargaming to teach tactics and disseminate lessons learned to convoy commanders during the Battle of the Atlantic. Similarly, the famous interwar games at the U.S. Naval War College contributed to preparing a generation of naval officers for the challenges of World War II. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army used the Dunn-Kempf wargame to teach small-unit tactical decision-making and adversary weaponry. In the U.S. Navy, Harpoon, a commercial miniatures wargame, and SEATAG, a wargame designed by the U.S. Naval War College, both garnered grassroot followings in the 1980s with their detailed naval engagements.
Likewise, from the 1980s to the 1990s, the U.S. Marine Corps institutionalized a family of educational wargames collectively referred to as TACWAR. It consisted of four distinct wargames: a company-level wargame called TACWAR; a battalion and Marine amphibious unit staff-level game called STEELTHRUST; a game aimed at regimental and Marine amphibious brigade staffs called LANDING FORCE; and a strategic-level wargame for Marine amphibious force and amphibious brigade staffs called WARFARE. The TACWAR family of wargames was disseminated to tactical units across the Marine Corps, paired with the support staff, facilities, and funding to support grassroots wargaming.
History has also shown that educational wargaming works best when it is part of a robust system of professional military education. The tremendous impact of the Naval War College interwar wargames stemmed from a convergence of course work, repeated wargames, and experience drawn from fleet exercises. Peter Perla, the author of The Art of Wargaming, describes this process as the “cycle of learning,” where multimodal learning methods harmonize and amplify each other. Educational wargaming will not predict the future. Rather, educational wargames provide an intellectual sandbox to explore possible answers to wicked battlefield challenges — without the finality of combat.
Boom and Bust
If the successes of educational wargaming are evident in history, so are the perpetual cycles of rediscovery. Educational wargaming, like wargaming as a wider discipline, has historically suffered from a boom-and-bust pattern. At present, wargaming is a popular buzzword in defense circles, as demonstrated by proposals for everything from AI-enabled wargaming to experimental wargaming. Spurred by the Joint Chiefs of Staff 2020 guidance on professional military education, educational wargaming is experiencing a belated renaissance as professional military education institutions increasingly integrate wargaming into their curriculum. Select institutions like the Army War College and Marine Corps University have aggressively leaned into experiential learning methods and wargaming. Their successes, such as the Marine Corps University’s cloud-based wargaming, have been buoyed by increased funding and dedicated wargaming staff. However, the growth of wargaming in educational institutions — although admirable and necessary — only serves a minority of officers.
In stark contrast, educational wargaming in tactical units remains an accidental product of individual initiative aligning with institutional tolerance. I have seen countless units struggle and succeed in building a wargaming capability within their organizations — only to see it wither and steadily disappear with every change of command. This is a tragically common occurrence.
From 1982 through the 1990s, the Basic School and Marine Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy employed TACWAR for instructional wargaming, and it became widely used within units across the Marine Corps. Yet in the late 1990s, TACWAR became bloated with several rule expansions and modules while the supporting infrastructure gradually disappeared. Eventually, the wargame became too onerous to play. The pursuit of a singular wargaming solution destroyed a once-promising family of educational wargames. Whether or not the infrastructure and diversity surrounding the current generation of educational wargames grows or staggers remains to be seen.
Building an Educational Wargaming Ecosystem
What can be done to break the boom-and-bust cycle and bring educational wargaming to every echelon? There is no single, perfect wargame for every educational need. A tactical air squadron and a logistics planning staff will have their own specific learning objectives. This means the joint force should aim to develop, expand, and maintain a diverse ecosystem of educational wargames.
The easiest and most expedient option is to provide off-the-shelf commercial wargames to tactical units. This is a tried-and-true method of educational wargaming. For example, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College employs a wide variety of commercial titles for its classes, such as Race to the Rhine, Friedrich, Battle for Moscow, and Root. Moreover, commercial wargames are increasingly prevalent within units. Both Shores of Tripoli and Memoir 44 have been used as introductory wargames within tactical units. Commercial wargames provide opportunities to tackle moments in military history as dynamic case studies. However, their utility can be constrained by their inherent desire to appeal to a broad, civilian audience. Commercial titles may also struggle to represent the nuances and specific decision-space required for unit-based wargaming. For instance, Twilight Struggle, Flashpoint: South China Sea, and Divided Europe are all excellent wargames about influence but may not fit the specific need of a civil affairs unit.
Tailor-made educational wargames will always be more precisely applicable, but they require significant lead times and are more limited in production and distribution. In 2022, Marine Air Group 24 sponsored a group of my Georgetown University graduate students to design a custom educational wargame to explore strategic lift in an Indo-Pacific conflict. The resulting wargame, Fight to the Fight, required five months of research and design before being handed off to Marine Air Group 24 for further development. Similarly, Thor’s Hammer, a logistics wargame, was sponsored by the Command and General Staff College for its curriculum and then distributed to a select few Army units. The Naval War College also designed War at Sea, a customizable wargame system exploring operational planning from World War II to the modern era. In the Air Force, Kingfish ACE, a wargame designed by Troy Pierce, explores the complexities of planning and mobilizing multicapable airmen in agile combat employment operations.
Bespoke educational wargames provide units the opportunity to align their specific learning objectives with a game’s design. The level of complexity, decision space of the players, and topical focus can all be customized for a specific learning objective. However, the distribution of these bespoke games can be constrained, as they are often handmade and limited in quantity.
Flexible, off-the-shelf educational wargames designed specifically for military audiences occupy the successful sweet spot between the extremes of commercial and tailor-made educational games. The Operational Wargame System, designed by Tim Barrick, is the quintessential example. It provides an operational wargame rule book with various modules featuring several regions and orders of battle, enabling the wargame to be adaptable. The wargame has been employed by units and commands across the joint force, as well as allies and partners, to foster operational art and planning. Likewise, my own Littoral Commander: Indo-Pacific wargame (previously called Fleet Marine Force) explores tactical engagements in hypothetical conflicts in the region, focusing on Force Design 2030 and the Marine littoral regiment. Littoral Commander has been employed at Marine Corps Expeditionary Warfare School and continues to be used in the Career School and the Advanced Course at the College of Enlisted Military Education. More importantly, tactical units across the Marine Corps are making significant use of Littoral Commander.
These off-the-shelf military educational wargames combine the accessibility of commercial wargames and the specificity of bespoke wargames. This expands the pool of players critically engaging with wargaming from small groups of resident professional military education students to the wider joint force. An Army captain playing Operational Wargame System and an enlisted Marine playing Littoral Commander within their units can help foster broader wargaming literacy. However, off-the-shelf military educational wargames are also incredibly labor-intensive and difficult to design. For example, Littoral Commander required three years of design, development, and playtesting before its commercial release.
Avoiding Past Mistakes
The concept of developing a diverse educational wargaming ecosystem is not entirely new. The TACWAR wargames were designed to be a family of wargames, each tailored for its principal educational audience. Similarly, the notion of a wargaming list for education has been considered since the early 1990s. But in both cases, the efforts were not sustained, and the learning environment was allowed to fade away. To avoid repeating history, the joint force should consider several further steps.
First, establish an annual educational wargaming fund to support wargaming in tactical units — particularly for designing bespoke wargames for tailored learning objectives. Admittedly, the current Wargaming Incentive Fund has increasingly supported educational wargaming. However, analytical and educational wargames competing for scarce resources are a recipe for the status quo.
Second, identify and adapt successful professional military education wargames for distribution across the joint force. There are several wargames — like War at Sea, the matrix-style games at Army War College, or Kingfish ACE — that could be further developed and modified for widespread use in tactical units. A wide range of accessible educational wargames will better address the varying needs of a diverse joint force.
Third, build wargaming infrastructure —in terms of funding, personnel, and physical space – to support wargaming within tactical units. Wargaming experts and facilitators, who are not subject to the constant churn of their uniformed counterparts, will reduce the burden of establishing and maintaining wargaming in units and foster institutional memory. This was a critical element to the success of TACWAR.
Fourth, integrate wargaming literacy and skills into the enlisted educational pipeline. This does not mean creating an enlisted force focused on designing wargames. Instead, enlisted leaders should be equipped with the experience, tools, and skills to leverage and teach wargames at the small unit level. The recent successes of wargaming at the College of Enlisted Military Education reflect the untapped potential of enlisted-led wargaming. Sustaining wargaming will require widening access to the broader joint force.
Finally, embrace various media for educational wargaming, blending established methods with new technologies. An excellent example is the Marine Corps University’s cloud-based wargaming initiative, which combines commercially available tabletop wargames with the accessibility of cloud-based computing. Open source AI, augmented reality, and other technologies also offer interesting possibilities.
To avoid the historical boom-bust pattern, the joint force should provide the necessary tools and support to build and maintain a diverse ecosystem of educational wargaming at the tactical unit level. Yet directives without funding are destined for failure. Without new and sustained support, current educational wargaming initiatives will stagnate and become artifacts of the past. The success of educational wargaming in preparing the next generation of tactical leaders may determine whether the next conflict tilts toward victory or defeat.
Sebastian J. Bae, a research analyst and game designer at the Center for Naval Analyses, works in wargaming, emerging technologies, and the future of warfare. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. He is also the faculty advisor to the Georgetown University Wargaming Society, the co-chair of the Military Operations Research Society Wargaming Community of Practice, and a former Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. Previously, he served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009.
Littoral Commander is not a U.S. government product and not owned or funded by the U.S. Marine Corps or any other government entity. This work represents the views of the designer alone and does not reflect or represent the opinions of the U.S. government, U.S. Marine Corps, the Center for Naval Analyses, or any other affiliated organization.