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Strategic Wargames: Tools for Building Strategic Insight

Designing effective strategic wargames can help develop a deep understanding of complex environments in a variety of domains. Wargaming extends back to the Prussian military in the 1820s when it was used for more tactical-level planning and training purposes. Even today, it is commonly associated with the military (hence, the use of “war” in the term), but its practical applications extend far beyond this narrow concept.

Today, wargames are being used by businesses to develop a better understanding of market conditions, by non-governmental organizations to enhance their impact, by governments to better understand international crises, and by defense organizations to anticipate the impact of technology on warfare.

The definition of what a wargame is varies widely, but all true wargames include a few common elements:

  1. A realistic scenario-based model of competition (as opposed to an abstract representation, such as chess)
  2. Human players that are competing against each other
  3. An arbitration system that governs player interactions
  4. Consequences that impact the course of the game and its ultimate outcome

With these simple starting points, wargames are designed to help understand the nuances of localized tactical efforts all the way up to international long-range strategies and environments.

The rest of this article provides some more specifics on strategic wargames, and explains how WarPaths can help your organizations utilize this effective planning tool.  

What makes a wargame “strategic?”

Given the variety of applications for wargaming, it is reasonable to ask what distinguishes a wargame as being at the strategic level versus a more tactical game. One way to think about this is the degree of certainty you have in the variables being modeled and their relationships.

Let’s use, as an example, a military wargame. In a tactical game, we can be fairly certain on a number of variables that would impact a real-world scenario: the weapon ranges, their destructive power, the types of units and quantities on each side, etc. As a result, we can construct rule sets to adjudicate the conflict that are very specific to the situations that will arise over the course of the game. So specific, in fact, that we can code them into a server that can determine the outcome of the battle by knowing the initial conditions (how things are arranged at the start of the battle).

In strategic wargame, there is much less certainty about how the inputs might impact the outcome. The length of time involved, the role of populations, the decisions of national leaders, etc, all will impact things at the strategic level. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine a restrictive rule set to adjudicate the conflict being simulated. In order to manage these games, white cells (or control cells) are used to referee the game and ensure it stays on track.

Naturally, the practice of wargaming has evolved to accommodate these differing levels of certainty about the environment. There are three broad categories of types of games you should be aware of that are described below.

Seminar Games

These games resemble a panel discussion on a particular topic and often rely on expert opinion. The role of game controllers (or white cells) is primarily to ensure all participants provide input on a topic and keep the discussion oriented on issues of interest. These games are used in situations where information about the problem set is very low, and a primary goal is to begin to establish a shared understanding of how the problems may play out. A seminar game might be used, for example, to discuss how a new technology may alter battlefield outcomes ten years in the future. With the high degree of speculation required to do this effectively, a seminar approach makes the most sense.

Kriegsspiel Games

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kriegsspiel (German for “wargame”) are used in cases where a great deal is known about the environment, problem set, and adversary capabilities, intentions, and options. As a result, they are useful in examining tactical or operational problems. White cells often have little role in these games, since rule sets can be developed to determine outcomes each turn or engagement. An example application of this approach would be examining options for logistical support deep into enemy territory.

Matrix Games

Matrix games fall in between these two extremes in terms of certainty about the problem set and background environment. As a result, they have few restrictions on what types of moves are allowed by the teams. They can best be thought of as structured debates, and are very effective for dealing with challenges at the strategic level. In a matrix game, moves are submitted as “arguments” and succeed or fail based on the strength of the logic.

White cells typically have a large role in matrix games to moderate arguments and settle disputes. A wide range of techniques can be used to aid in determining outcomes including dice, probability tables, surveys among the players, and others. An example application of this approach would be in developing integrated diplomatic, informational, military, and economic options to respond to China’s Belt & Road Initiative. WarPaths (this site’s application) is developed for conducting matrix games with distributed players.

Building effective strategies usually requires building in a large degree of flexibility because of how unpredictable certain variables are in the environment. As a result, strategic wargames require an approach that also allow for unexpected conditions and practicing that needed flexibility. Matrix games are ideally suited for this.

Why use strategic wargames?

Why would we use wargames to explore a concept, a meeting of forces, a contingency plan, or anything else? Organizations dealing with these issues have a lot of options for looking at a problem, such as computer simulations, data analysis, historical records, and even analogies. What is it about wargames that make them special?

What distinguishes a wargame from other analytic approaches is in facing human adversaries – your fellow wargame participants. These adversaries are reasoning based on a different set of incentives and objectives than you are, so are likely to pose challenges you haven’t considered. Because of this, wargaming is very effective at pointing out weaknesses in the plans of organizations that may have “assumed away” many of the problems that exist with their plan.

Keep in mind that a wargame is a simplified model of reality – an abstraction that is used to develop an insight about a difficult problem. Because of this, it is important that the model be designed effectively to examine the relevant elements of the problem. Poorly designed wargames can actually mislead organizations about what is important in the scenario being explored. Because of how complex this can get, organizations will often purchase the services of companies that specialize in wargame design.

But with a properly developed game, the benefits of having a concept challenged by a thinking adversary become apparent.

What are the purposes of strategic wargames?

There are four central purposes for strategic wargames, despite the very wide variety of applications discussed in the opening to this article. They are: controlling organizational biases, challenging your assumptions, identifying new opportunities, and exposing weaknesses in a strategic approach.

Before getting into the specifics of the list above, we need to narrow down what type of wargame we are referring to. This article (and this site) does not address wargames for hobby or entertainment purposes, so is focused on what is typically termed “serious games.” We’ll also ignore (for now) wargames that are conducted for educational purposes – though that is an important function for strategic wargaming. This places us in the category of serious analytic games at the strategic level.

Strategic wargames must make some key choices in abstracting away some dynamics that will play out in the real world. This is because the game is intended to develop insight about something specific – not get lost in very complex details that will overshadow those insights being sought. A strategic wargame helps visualize a crisis at a high level. As a result, the purposes of the wargame are similarly aimed at clarifying conceptual relationships in the scenario.

Control biases

Every organization, and every individual, is biased in some manner. Bias in this sense only refers to a distorted understanding of a given situation because of the individual’s past experiences and resulting mental models. When a strategy is developed to help an organization achieve some objective, those biases will tend to creep in. For example, people might underestimate the costs associated with an action while overestimating its costs (optimism bias) or magnify the importance of some information because of their preferences (confirmation bias). Whatever the bias might be, the public debate dynamics will help expose such biases and make participants more aware of things they might otherwise prefer to ignore.

Challenge assumptions

All strategies must be based on some set of assumptions in order to function. Assumptions allow you to establish a baseline understanding of the environment so that you can better plan on how you want to impact it or operate within it. A bad assumption, therefore, is a fundamental misreading of the environment so can lead to the strategy’s failure. Strategic wargames can help eliminate bad assumptions by exposing them to a higher degree of scrutiny, or identify additional assumptions needed to plan effectively. If things unexpectedly change in the market or environment, being explicit about your assumptions can also help identify how the strategy must change to adapt to the new reality.

Identify new opportunities

There is more than just one path to a strategic level goal for an organization. Wargames can help identify new approaches, or even new technologies, that can help find the optimal path to success. Achieving this often requires multiple games on the same issue because of the multiple possibilities that need exploring. Often this is best accomplished by building in time to reflect on an iteration or even a turn. This provides the time and space needed for creative approaches to develop and players to have a “Eureka!” moment.

Expose weaknesses in a plan

In addition to dealing with biases or poor assumptions in a strategy, an organization might also simply develop a strategy riddled with weaknesses. Unless members of an organization can be placed in a situation in which they are motivated to expose these weaknesses, they may survive into strategy execution. Keeping participants quiet deprives the larger group of what might be important information. Wargames can help create those incentives to critique a poor assertion among individuals that might otherwise bite their tongues.

Limitations of strategic wargames

Despite the long list of benefits, users of wargames should also understand what they can actually accomplish, and what they cannot. When used to support large-scale projects, wargaming is only one of a variety of activities for organizations striving to understand what capabilities they should develop or actions they can feasibly take. These other activities might include:

  • Technology development & testing
  • Concept development
  • Expert surveys or interviews
  • Research
  • Simulations
  • Red teaming

There are others, but the main point is that wargaming is only one part of a complex endeavor when an organization is figuring out how to deal with very challenging problems. Wargaming is never a validation or proof of anything on its own. This is because as a simplified model of reality, a game can never “prove” your plans for success in the real, much more complex world.

Ultimately wargames can accomplish two things. First, they can help you clarify your options against a problem set in terms of relative strengths and weaknesses. Second, they can help you identify problems in your plans that were not anticipated before the game.

Once a game is complete and a list of lessons are compiled, wording that indicates the wargame was used properly will fall along the lines of:

  • “Repeated wargaming shows the weaknesses in our plan are in the areas of…”
  • “This wargame indicated we should consider developing an option to…”
  • “This wargame included an adversary action we had never considered, which was…”

Strategic Wargaming on WarPaths

WarPaths was designed for conducting strategic wargames for national security professionals and provides a number of advantages a traditional wargame does not. In this section, we’ll briefly cover five of those advantages for you to consider for your organization’s next wargaming session.

Distributed Wargaming

Conducting professional events remotely has obviously grown in importance over the last few years. Even as businesses moved beyond the COVID restrictions, they have tried to retain useful aspects of remote work where possible. Wargaming is no exception.

There are clear advantages to an in-person simulation such as informal conversations that lead to serendipitous insights, retaining engagement during the game, and being able to encourage all participants to speak out. There are also challenges with restricting wargaming to in-person events. For example, coordinating calendars and ensuring all participants are local, fatigue setting in with longer events, and lack of time to consider multiple angles as the game tempo remains high.

Having the ability to conduct a distributed game, while not necessarily appropriate for all situations, allows you to avoid some of the in-person-only issues while taking advantage of some benefits created with longer games with lower tempos. WarPaths was built for these purposes.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Wargames

WarPaths provides the ability to conduct a game with all participants logged in and conversing on a teleconferencing platform of your choice, while all referencing a single common picture of the state of the game. For such synchronous games, all player interaction with the game is on a single screen. This approach allows for some off-topic discussions that may lead to insights on the issues at hand.

You can also switch to an asynchronous mode, during the same game, to allow teams to discuss their inputs at a time of their choosing and submit them before the turn’s expiration. You set the turn length of time which can range from minutes to weeks. In this mode, you can also allow time for other teams to submit comments and critique other teams’ inputs before the white cell makes a determination of the success of each argument.

Customization of the Wargame Scenarios

WarPaths puts you in charge of designing the background for your scenario, determining what locations in the world it plays out in, and creating the teams. You can direct particular strategies for each team or allow them to develop their own, while providing private background information to each if desired. You can determine how many arguments the teams may submit each turn (between 1 and 3) while also choosing between a traditional matrix argument format and a DIME-centric format (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic actions).

The map-based interface supports color-coded conditions by country (and some sub-country regions), team-based icons for them to move during the turns, incident icons to drive decisions each turn, and location-based icons to represent key terrain – all controlled and customized by the white cell.  

Collaboration Across Teams

Communication is critical for wargames, and WarPaths provides several ways to facilitate it. The messaging system supports within-team communication to debate moves, within-alliance (red, blue, and green) communication to coordinate actions, and direct messages between the team leaders of all teams (for back-channel negotiations). There is also an administrative messaging system for the white cell to provide updates to participants. All team members are able to view their arguments before submission, and the white cell has the ability to view all messages and arguments – even in the drafting phase.

Wargaming Lessons

At the end of the game, the lessons learned are what really matter. They can be used to set the terms of the next game, or be used to inform real-world actions. WarPaths provides three systems for capturing key elements of the game.

First, a history system allows you to turn back the clock – one turn at a time – to view the incidents, arguments, condition changes, and intelligence items that occurred during that turn. This is useful for both formal after action reviews and general discussions on the game afterwards.

Second, you can export via an email sent to an address of your choosing, all the arguments, comments, and white cell notes for all turns throughout the game. This is useful for a meta-analysis of the game and facilitates word-searching if needed.

Finally, a during-game note system allows all players to capture thoughts and put them in a central location. These can be useful for discussions on issues that were not represented in the game but need thought, debate, or another game! The white cell can choose to restrict the viewing of the notes to each team’s own inputs until the end of the game if desired.

WarPaths was build to deliver the benefits of strategic wargaming to a wide variety of organizations – not just the military! Want to learn more? Check out our case studies, and drop us a note below!

Contact Us

WarPaths is a platform for conducting strategic wargames online with distributed participants in synchronous or asynchronous play. It is aimed at national security professionals and students. Please contact us for any inquiries related to bringing WarPaths to your organization.

Government organizations can request a capabilities statement through a message in the form below. We look forward to hearing from you!.