Online Wargaming: Advantages of Distributed Wargames

Online wargaming is a solution to some problems you are aware of, and even some that you are not. COVID created challenges for all professions as organizations attempted to adjust their activities, but for those involved with wargaming the challenges were particularly acute. Wargaming is a discipline that typically insists upon face-to-face communication over a physical game board during play, as many of the benefits from the experience revolve around unplanned discussions on events that occur within the structure of the game.

Further, the nature of many games aimed at professional audiences simply made distributed options poor substitutes. Complex rule sets, the role of the white cell (or master game control) and even classification issues for government organizations resulted in many beneficial activities simply being shut down. Yet, just as businesses learned, there are benefits to maintaining an online capability for core organizational functions – even for wargaming.

In this article, we will cover some of the unique benefits that can be derived from an online play capability, and wrap up with a brief exploration of how WarPaths can help you reap those benefits during your next wargaming effort.

Organizations that were forced to look for creative solutions during COVID conditions found few viable options. Those that were available were aimed at a more hobby-oriented audience and intended to be played solo (such as the Total War series) and are more battle-focused for the play. Benefits to these games were more general, and difficult to adapt to a specific problem set in a professional setting – even for educational institutions. Soon, conferences began to address the topic of distributed gaming, with lessons being shared on how to solve common practical problems.

One of the more popular options was to use a tabletop simulator, which can be used to replicate any one of a number of board wargames but on a computer screen. Essentially, this takes a physical game and creates a digital representation of the wargaming mechanics. Although feasible, the approach really does not take full advantage of the possibilities created by using an online format.

If we envision what such a format should consist of, it would include a few key elements:

Standardized and centralized communications

When work-arounds such as the tabletop simulator are used to facilitate distributed game play, communication within and across teams, as well as with the white cell, becomes complex. Often, running such games would rely on a combination of video teleconferencing, email, text, and maybe a desktop chat application for coordinating the administrative functions as well as the action within a game turn.

A fully developed online system should provide the means to streamline the crosstalk, backchannel communications, and administrative announcements.

Provide the ability to easily review game history and data

A physical game does not have built-in systems for documenting how play unfolded in earlier turns, or once the game is complete. When the purpose of wargaming play is to develop a deeper understanding of some complex issue, such a lack of documentation can create a problem. Relying on notetakers – especially when multiple locations are used – is sub-optimal.

A game engine designed for online play would provide this ability and integrate the in-turn action, communications, and adjudication from the white cell in a single easy-to-review package.

Support asynchronous play

Running high-level games always means challenges in coordinating calendars among busy participants. Even with an online format that can avoid requiring travel to gather the participants, conducting a synchronous game with everyone present on the video teleconference simultaneously, may not avoid this. Even games hosted on a tabletop simulator do not sidestep this challenge.

An online system should provide the ability to support asynchronous play, where teams are able to develop their actions and input them without having all other teams present. This replicates the old “play by mail” games that allowed players to consider their moves with a bit more time. Now, this approach allows us to get benefits from the game while avoiding the calendar issues.

Maximize game customization for the game designer

One of the central problems with board wargames or card games is that they are purposefully built to replicate a given scenario. Significant modifications to the scenario would require a game-specific addition or a new game. A tabletop simulator does not avoid this issue, as it relies on a digitization of an existing game format.

Cloud-based digital infrastructure provides us with the ability to easily create purpose-specific games to run, and then update them when needed. When games includes options to customize based on the challenge your want to explore, you can better focus your efforts around that issue. Relying on a more epic game that explores multiple issues reduces both the probability your concern will be explored at all, as well as the time devoted to it.

Benefits of an Online Format

In the previous section, we discussed some of the characteristics needed in an effective system for online games. Here, we’ll discuss some of the benefits your organization can derive from maintaining this capability for your decision simulations. Broadly speaking, we can identify three main benefits.

Integrate distributed expertise

First, and perhaps most obviously, moving your wargaming play online allows organizations to leverage the expertise of participants that are offsite. This can reduce the problems that revolve around coordinating schedules and paying for travel and accommodations.

This also means you can more easily integrate participants from outside organizations, as well. This allows you to bring in new perspectives on the problem set under study. Often, running games with only participants internal to the organization means biases and blind spots can begin to shape the lessons of the experience. In the worst case, such biases can result in very misleading results.

Wargames, particularly strategic wargames, are best thought of as structured debates. Bringing in participants with very different perspectives can expose the scenario and assumptions to a higher degree of scrutiny and ultimately result in higher quality lessons.

Ease of resetting and reworking

Utilizing a digital format instead of a board game also significantly decreases the marginal cost of conducting another game. As is the case with all digital goods, the development costs are all associated with providing that very first version under development. Subsequent games using the same version then become much cheaper with most costs being tied up in the participants’ time. Board games come with additional costs that multiply each time a game is run.

Digital wargaming allows you to control cost and reset the game multiple times to rework key assumptions, explore new options, change the outcome of a key battle, and include varying participants to get additional scrutiny and insights on the issues at hand.

Time to develop new perspectives

This advantage applies to either asynchronous wargaming (where not all participants are online at once) or sporadic wargaming (participants are online at once, but over multiple sessions) formats. This would not apply to online synchronous games completed in a single session.

Asynchronous or sporadic formats provide additional time for participants to consider and mentally explore options prior to committing to a course of action in the game. This mitigates an availability bias, where the insights are limited to those that are already contained within the heads of the participants.

Additional time between sessions allows for more research to inform choices, creative ideas to be translated into possible actions, and new mental models to be explored. Further, it helps those that are naturally quieter to find the words to confidently express their thoughts.

Perhaps more importantly, additional time allows for objections to be more fully developed as the participants think through second and third-order effects of a move or argument. This is often short-changed in single session formats as participants sail on to the next event within the game fairly quickly.

It’s worth noting that approaches that use live, thinking opponents can magnify the benefits of developing new perspectives in these games, and are generally superior to those where a side is played solo.

Analytic Wargaming Online

We can classify wargaming into two broad categories that are specific to professional applications. First, there is analytic wargaming that is focused on real-world problems that require analysis (such as how new military vehicles, ships, or other arms can impact the outcome of a battle or require a change in strategy). Second, there is educational wargaming that is intended to teach professional topics in an experiential setting. They may deal with current issues, or fictional ones, but the intent is mainly to instruct concepts that will be applied later by the practitioners. In this section, we’ll explore one more advantage created by online formats for analytic wargaming, as well as one unique problem.

One more advantage…

In addition to the advantages discussed above, online gaming provides another that is specific to analytic wargaming. In most games, participants are often very focused on the current/next move and fail to keep a strategic view of the issues being developed. This is often the domain of the White Cell. Yet, with multiple teams working independently, it can be difficult to maintain enough situational awareness in the middle of the game to be able to surface insights that would be otherwise lost.

Properly configured tools to conduct an online wargame will allow the White Cell to view the “sausage making” of the teams as they consider their unique positions in the simulation. As a result, the White Cell may see issues and items that deserve further exploration that would otherwise get lost in the rush to the next turn. During in-person wargaming it is often difficult to both (1) get teams to devote enough time to move development and (2) maintain sufficient White Cell awareness of the groups’ efforts. Online tools can provide a digital record to review for these things.

…and a challenge.

One problem that may hamper the use of an online approach is the issue of security classification. For those in the national security field, it may be difficult to conduct a game where the objectives or lessons expected to be learned can exceed an “unclassified” label.

One way to approach this is to be clear about what make the wargame a classified event. Aside from the inclination to over-classify everything, there may also be reasons why the classification does not rise to the level you believe it will.

For example, are the starting conditions of the game the problem? Almost any scenario you can imagine can be built on information freely available in open sources. Wargaming based on this information, even though it may be adjacent to more detailed classified information, can still result in useful insights once complete.

Might the weapon system classification or location be an issue? At the strategic level, games can be easily run with purposely “blurred” information detail to prevent relying on information – assuming it is relevant at all. In most cases, strategic level games do not require this level of detail to generate useful information.

If the purpose of the play is to explore a concept or its application, such as how the battlefield is being shaped by new technology, or how strategy should be modified as a war unfolds, scenarios can be easily developed to address the topic narrowly and sidestep classification issues related to linking multiple ideas or concepts. Scoping the wargaming effort broadly to improve the contextual information may have its place, but the ability to run the games quickly and repeatedly with distributed participants means you can take smaller bites – and focus more deeply on your central concerns, one at a time.

Educational Wargaming Online

Online wargaming can also be useful in an educational setting. By their nature, educational activities require that a student contemplate issues and research topics outside of the formal classroom setting.

In most cases, wargaming is considered an “in-person” activity as discussed earlier, but this limited conception only addresses half of the educational activity requirements. They also tend to be more battle-focused at the tactical level and are intended to emphasize historical events. This need not be the case.

An asynchronous or synchronous-but-sporadic approach to games allows students the time to wrap their minds around difficult concepts or develop actions in complex games. Considering second- and third-order effects is an essential skill in learning to think critically in an educational setting, but something that often gets derailed during in-person wargames with definite end times.

While team-based approaches may still make sense for a number of learning activities, an educational setting provides a bit more flexibility in allowing one or more sides to be played solo than in analytic wargaming. You can then focus appropriately to support your lesson plan on one or more sides.

Exploring difficult topics through games is becoming more popular in education and utilizing such tools can bring a range of benefits to both students and instructors to help solidify the learning objectives.

Wargaming with WarPaths

If you are considering using online options for your next wargame, WarPaths was built for the purposes of delivering the advantages discussed above. Simply by having an internet connection, you can conduct your wargaming events (supports Windows and Mac OS browsers) on our website. Specifically, with WarPaths you can:

  1. Integrate the distributed expertise you need on the scenario, both inside and outside your organization, with email-based invitations that assign players to teams you identify.
  2. Customize the scenario, map, teams, and incidents to address your specific analytic or educational wargaming requirements.
  3. Easily reset the game to “turn 0” to rework the issue from different angles, or utilize different players.
  4. Provide the time essential for developing innovative insights by switching between synchronous and asynchronous play – even for the same game.
  5. Allow White Cells to observe and control all argument drafting to ensure all key issues are identified for further analysis/exploration after play is complete.
  6. Review all information associated with each turn for the entirety of the game for conducting after-action reviews.
  7.  Allow new players to join and jump right into an in-progress event.
  8.  Bring in VIPs under an observer account that allows complete viewing of all WarPaths functions, but without the ability to change database items during the event.