Strategic WargamesTools for Building Strategic Insights
Designing effective strategic wargames can help in the process of learning about complex environments in a variety of domains and lead to improved decision making. Wargaming extends back to the Prussian military in the 1820s when it was used for more tactical-level planning and training for operations in war. 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 (or decision simulations) are being used: by businesses to develop a better understanding of future market conditions; by non-governmental organizations to better achieve their objectives; by governments to better understand international crises; and by military leaders to anticipate the impact of technology on warfare. In short, it is a key strategic planning tool.
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What makes a wargame?
The definition of what a wargame is varies widely, but all true wargames include a few common elements:
- A realistic scenario-based model of competition (as opposed to an abstract representation, such as chess)
- Human players that are competing against each other
- An arbitration system that governs player interactions
- Consequences that impact the course of the game and its ultimate outcome
With these simple starting points, wargames can be designed to help conduct analysis of military battles in a war, inform the planning of humanitarian aid efforts, guide the development of technology for a business, or create new approaches for political candidates.
These decision simulations are often thought of as a version of board games, but as we’ll see, there are a number of approaches that can be more appropriate for conducting your analysis, advancing your research, or testing your idea.
What makes a wargame “strategic?”
Given the variety of applications for wargaming, it is reasonable to ask what distinguishes a wargame as being “strategic” 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.
In tactical military simulations, for example, we can be fairly certain on a number of variables that would impact a real-world combat scenario: the weapon ranges, their destructive power, the types of units and quantities on each side, consumption rates of resources, 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). Therefore, these rigid rule sets are most appropriate for playing close combat games (or planning a combat mission).
In strategy games, 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 a nation, the reliability of allies, the initial concerns of third parties, etc, all will impact things at the strategic level. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine a restrictive rule set to adjudicate all aspects of the conflict being played. To manage these games, white cells (or control cells) are used to referee the game and ensure it stays on track.
It is important to note, that in between strategy and tactics, is the concept of operational art. This is the deliberate planning of a series of combat engagements (typically on land) aligned toward objectives in campaigns. The logistical aspects of preparing for multiple battles, such as planning and managing supply lines, is central here. We won’t spend more time exploring this concept, but it plays a key role in bridging strategy and tactics.
Naturally, the practice has evolved to accommodate these differing levels of certainty about the environment. There are three broad categories you should be aware of that are described below.
These games resemble a panel discussion on a particular topic, usually rely on expert opinion, and often are aimed at longer-range future strategy issues. 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 military technology may alter battlefield outcomes in a war ten years in the future. With the higher degree of speculation required to do this effectively, a seminar approach makes the most sense.
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 combat situations. It’s also possible to use this approach to examine military strategy in a war, though will typically focus on the operations and management of resources, rather than playing other elements of national power. White cells often have little role here, 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 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 strategic challenges. 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 here 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. This approach is useful to explore how the integrated diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of national power will impact the likelihood and outcome of war. 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 decision simulations require an approach that also allow for unexpected conditions and practicing that needed flexibility. Matrix games are ideally suited for this.
This video is a short overview of how WarPaths is used to conduct wargames with matrix-style arguments. The synchronous mode shown here requires that players be conversing on a video chat application of your choice, while being logged into WarPaths. All gameplay functions are contained on the page demonstrated here.
Why use a strategy game?
Why would we use wargames to conduct analysis of 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 that make them special?
What distinguishes a wargame from other analytic approaches is in having one player (or team) face other players, while each are motivated to “win” for their side. 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.
Decision making and strategic planning
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, guide future research, or develop strategies to mitigate risk. It can be tailored to support an isolated decision, or a longer-range effort with multiple moving pieces. Because of this, it is important that the model be designed effectively to examine the relevant elements of the problem. A poorly designed game 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 a strategic wargame?
There are four central purposes for conducting a strategic game, 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) those that are conducted for educational purposes – though that is an important function. This places us in the category of serious analytic simulations at the strategic level.
Strategic decision simulations 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. These simulations helps visualize a crisis at a high level to inform military strategy in a war, identify needs for future research, . As a result, the purposes of the wargame are similarly aimed at clarifying conceptual relationships in the scenario.
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. People might underestimate the risk 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.
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 decision simulations 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 situation.
Identify new opportunities
There is more than just one path to success for an organization. A wargame can help identify new approaches, or even new technologies, that can help find the optimal path to success. Achieving this often requires multiple iterations on the same issue because of the multiple possibilities that need exploring. Often this is best accomplished by building in time to reflect one move at a time. This provides the time and space needed for creative approaches to develop and players to have a “Eureka!” moment and fully develop a nascent idea. Time might also be required for participants to engage in research and learning about new topics before the next turn is played.
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. In military war planning, for example, these simulations can help identify deficiencies in operations or various types of risks not initially planned for. A wargame can help create those incentives to critique a poor assertion among individuals that might otherwise stay quiet and accept poorly presented moves.
Despite the long list of benefits, participants of a wargame 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
- 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. It 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.
Wargames can accomplish two things. First, they can help you clarify and explore 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. Both of these ultimately improve an organization’s decision making.
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 session indicated we require more resources to…”
- “This wargame included a successful adversary action we had never considered, which was…”
- “These scenarios pointed out we need more research in…”
Strategic Wargaming on WarPaths
WarPaths was designed for conducting online strategic wargames for national security professionals and provides a number of advantages a traditional wargame does not. It is a turn based game intended to give a high degree of flexibility to users in quickly setting up a simulation. In this section, we’ll briefly cover five of those advantages for you to consider for your organization’s next wargaming session.
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 to strategies 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 turns and lower tempos. WarPaths was built for these purposes.
Synchronous or Asynchronous?
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 use, 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. This allows you to fully explore multiple approaches to your problem set.
Customization of the 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.
WarPaths gives you the ability to customize the background for your wargames. Include links to videos or attach files in each slide-based element of the scenario.
Collaboration Across Teams
Communication is critical for a successful wargame, and WarPaths provides several ways to facilitate it. The messaging system supports within-team communication to debate moves, between allies (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.
WarPaths provides a turn-by-turn history of your wargame.
At the end of the game, the learning outcomes 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 arguments played by the teams, incidents, 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 note system allows all players to capture thoughts and put them in a central location during the simulation. These can be useful for discussions on issues that were not represented in the game but need thought, debate, or future research. 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 wargaming benefits to strategic planning processes in a wide variety of organizations – not just the military! Want to learn more? Check out our case studies, and drop us a note below!
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.
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