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What, actually, is a wargame; and why does this matter to you?

Our suggested definition of a wargame is:

‘Adversarial by nature, wargaming is a representation of military activities, using rules, data, and procedures, not involving actual military forces, and in which the flow of events is affected by, and in turn affects, decisions made during the course of those events by players acting for all actors, factions, factors and frictions relevant to those military activities.’

Some of you will recognise that this is an updated version of Peter Perla’s 1990 definition. The fact that the original – used in an adapted form by NATO, the US and the UK – remains extant demonstrates its validity after all those years and the many developments in the field. We will discuss aspects of this definition shortly and, by combining it with the elements of a wargame, show how you can test to see whether an activity is a wargame.

But first, why have a definition? As noted in the excerpt on the LBS Blog page, most people in the professional wargaming field have different views of what wargaming is. Too often this leads to miscommunication and a poor understanding of where the wargaming technique can and cannot be usefully applied. Wargaming remains ill-defined and, consequently, misused. Many people consider ‘wargame’ to be synonymous with ‘simulation’. It is not. See why in ‘The 7 Elements of a Wargame’ on the What is Wargaming? page. Within the British Army doctrinal Course of Action (COA) Wargaming is now simply called ‘wargaming’ and is consequently becoming confused with other types of wargaming. Worse still, ‘let’s wargame it’ is a too-often heard cry that precedes an unstructured BOGSAT (Bunch Of Guys Sat Around a Table) during which the authors of a plan loosely discuss said plan and congratulate themselves on a job well done. That is certainly not a wargame!

No-one would consider telling their subordinates to simply ‘go on exercise’. The spectrum of exercises, from adventure training through a warship evacuation drill to a divisional Final Test Exercise is vast. Obviously. So why is not equally obvious that there are many different types of wargame, and the approach taken to their design and execution must vary depending on how they are used?

So, a definition is required to ensure understanding. Furthermore, precise and agreed language is essential for effective communication. We demand this of anyone using mission language so why, in the professional wargaming field, do we accept chronic miscommunication?

But – and this is a Big But – a definition has to be of use. It has to help people understand a term or concept. As Peter Perla pointed out recently ‘It may well be that a single universal definition [of wargaming] is a bad idea in general and we may need to define our use of the word in any particular context’. So the definition offered above has to be applied flexibly. This might sound odd, given the expressed need for a definition and precise language, but think of it in the same manner as doctrine. Doctrine guides us but must not be applied dogmatically. Elements of the wargaming definition will be more or less useful in some circumstances than others. Apply it pragmatically.

Back to the definition. The key elements are: adversarial; players; and decisions. These are fundamental to a wargame. Without them a wargame is not a wargame. But let’s not be dogmatic! Players are the raison d’être of a training wargame but will have a less prominent role in an analytical wargame. The adversarial character of a Seminar Wargame might be small; players might simply be presented a series of vignettes to consider with no interactive Red Cell. Even so, these key elements will be present to some degree in all wargames.

‘…not involving actual military forces…’ is interesting, and again illustrates the agile mindset required when using the definition. Applied strictly, it could rule out activities supported by Live and Virtual simulations because these do tend to involve military force elements. But there are aspects of designing a wargame that are useful in the development of virtual environments such as VBS2. Quickly scan the Wargame Design Steps on the How we do it page and you will immediately see that these steps can be applied to the development of a virtual environment. If, for example, the ‘desired effect on the players’ was to teach Ground Sign Awareness then the ‘level and sources of information’ consideration would inform the development of the simulation and drive the required graphical detail. The debate over the inclusion of this phrase continues. Our feeling is that ‘…not involving actual military forces…’ should remain because it usefully narrows the scope of a wargame. The question of whether activities supported by Live and Virtual simulations are wargames is a useful debate because these are subtly different from activities that use Constructive simulations. In Live and Virtual there is an argument that, as long as the technology works, the role of the technical expert is limited. The training is usually carried out solely by the same military trainers who would conduct it in the absence of Live or Virtual simulations. But military personnel are usually unable to deliver training (or analysis) based on Constructive simulations without a team combining technical, Operational Analysis and wargame design skills. The emphasis in Live and Virtual is on the technology, while in an event using a Constructive simulation it is the processes that make an event succeed or fail. Understanding this is one of the keys to success.

The different types of wargame are described on the What is Wargaming page. Suffice to say that the distinction between the analytical and training domains is critical. Wargames, as defined above, support both areas. However, even though they are all wargames, they must be designed and executed differently, as described on the How we do it page. While reminding yourself of the ‘different types of wargame’ diagram, don’t forget that wargaming is just a technique to support decision making, as are Operational Analysis and Experimentation.

As well as having a definition of wargaming, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the elements that constitute a wargame. These are detailed on the What is Wargaming? page and are:

  1. Aim and objectives
  2. A scenario
  3. Database(s)
  4. Model(s)
  5. Rules, procedures and umpires
  6. Players
  7. Analysis

By using this list together with the definition it is possible to determine what is, and what is not, a wargame.

Example 1. Doctrinal COA Wargame. This is adversarial (the Red Cell, acting for all actors, factions, factors and frictions), has players and exists to enable decisions to mitigate risks and issues in a forming plan. There are no actual military forces and the flow of events is affected by, and in turn affects, decisions made during the course of those events. It fits the definition perfectly and contains all of the elements of a wargame, although the database might be a Staff Officers Handbook and the model might be a map with stickies and an Operational Analyst’s spreadsheet. A doctrinal COA Wargame is clearly a wargame.

Example 2. Review of Concept (ROC) drill or Mission Rehearsal. Because they look similar, a ROC drill is often confused with a COA Wargame. But, because it is a rehearsal of a formed plan, it is not adversarial and the flow of events is no longer affected by decisions taken during the event. There is no umpire because all decisions have been taken. There are no players, just spectators. And there is no analysis, only assimilation of one’s role in the plan. On all counts, a ROC drill is not a wargame. But confusion between it and a COA Wargame is endemic, leading too often to neither fulfilling their – very worthwhile but different – aims and objectives.

Example 3. Command and Staff Trainer (CAST). You get the idea. There is no need to reiterate the definition as a CAST fits perfectly. Likewise all the elements of a wargame are present. A CAST event is a quintessential wargame. It could be an educational Staff College wargame or a NATO accreditation exercise (such as those run by the Joint Warfare Centre for HQs about to deploy on operations). It might be an entirely manual Command Post Exercise run at unit level or a multinational exercise with players and control staff distributed around the world. These are all CAST events – and wargames.

Example 4. Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT). Another match to the definition. All the wargame elements are present, although the ‘model’ is the actual ground and umpiring and analysis is done by the directing staff.

Example 5. Seminar Wargame. A Seminar Wargame is ‘a structured discussion between experts in several fields to elicit opinions and judgements from them and to increase understanding’. It is a qualitative activity. All elements of a wargame should be present; indeed, it is these that prevent a Seminar Wargame degenerating into a BOGSAT. In particular, the use of a scenario (to provide context) and objective analysis force a structured and managed event. A well run Seminar Wargame fits the definition, although the dynamic flow of events is likely to be reduced if a predetermined series of vignettes or questions is used. This is the first of our examples where the definition creaks, because it can be argued that predetermined events cannot be affected by players’ decisions. But the point is that a Seminar Wargame will benefit from the application of the analytical wargame design, development, execution and analysis steps outlined on the How we do it page. It is useful to apply these wargame design steps so, even if the definition is not a perfect fit, it is of use when applied flexibly.

Example 6. Experimentation using a Constructive simulation. An experiment is ‘the process of testing the validity of a hypothesis by either a controlled process of interaction or observation, in order to acquire new knowledge about specific factors relevant to some particular decision.’ One might be run to determine future force structures, for example. The Constructive simulation might run a COA many times (the Monte Carlo method) to smooth results and derive the most likely outcome. The role of players in this instance would be limited to determining initial schemes of manoeuvre and making adjustments when changing a variable. But the definition stands up and all elements will be present. This is a wargame.

Example 7. Training squad level Tactics, Techniques and Procedures in a Virtual environment. As discussed above, the training audience is ‘actual military forces’, so that element of the definition can be questioned. Many of the wargame elements are subsumed into the immersive Virtual simulation (potentially all of them except the aim) – but they are still there. This is an example of an imperfect fit to the definition. Maybe Virtual environments are not wargames…but read on!

Why does this all matter, and how can you use the knowledge?

In Example 7 does the participation of actual military forces mean that an exercise in a Virtual training environment is not a wargame? Although an interesting debate, a better question is ‘could the development of a Virtual simulation, or an event supported by one, benefit from the application of a wargame design and delivery processes?’ The answer is yes. So be pragmatic and use wargaming best practice to the advantage of the simulation and any event using one. But deleting ‘actual military forces’ from the definition would allow almost any military activity to be classified as a wargame: a night navigation or live firing exercise, for example. Many important military activities do not benefit from the application of wargaming best practice and so it should not be applied.

Is the consideration of the best way to acquire spares for an aircraft fleet a wargame? Possibly, if it is set up and structured as per the definition and contains the elements of a wargame. This can be done but generally isn’t – and yet this is a real example of procurement executives declaring that what was actually an unstructured BOGSAT was a ‘wargame’ in the hope of persuading scrutineers that a weak decision-making process involved a degree of scientific rigour.

Is a ROC drill a wargame? Absolutely not. So stop confusing it with a COA Wargame. Both events deliver significant benefits but are different activities and must be approached as such.

The list goes on but the point remains the same: wargames can deliver significant benefits in both the training and analytical domains. To achieve these benefits logical and robust design, development and delivery processes must be used. These must be applicable to the wargame. But the first step has to be the recognition that something is a wargame.

Applied with a little common sense, the definition offered above and the elements of a wargame allow you to determine what is a wargame. From there, and in the knowledge that it is applicable, wargaming best practice can be applied to ensure the successful realisation of benefits.