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What is wargaming

What is Wargaming?

First point: it’s often misunderstood!

The importance of a common understanding has already been mentioned. This applies even to wargaming itself because the term is still widely misunderstood and misused. It is important to scan this page to see what we mean by a ‘wargame’: the elements that constitute one and the types, purposes and applications of various games. This knowledge, combined with the other necessary skills, underpins the ability to deliver successful events.

The term ‘wargaming’ and its connotations

‘Wargaming’ has a poor image in many militaries, being associated primarily with hobbyists, teenagers and dice. Partly because of this, wargaming is often ill-defined and even mocked, despite the potentially massive benefits it can deliver. Indeed, the term itself tends not to be used, often being replaced by ‘simulation’ (which is highly misleading – see How we do it) or requiring a prefix such as ‘Theatre’ or ‘Course of Action’ to impart gravitas or credibility. The recent trend for the military to use ‘serious’ games – i.e. designed primarily for a purpose other than entertainment – such as VBS2 acknowledges the benefits of gaming but defence still feels the need to stress the serious nature of these ‘games’.

Re-defining Kriegsspiel to ‘War considered using gaming mechanics

Perhaps the poor connotations originate from the simplistic Anglicisation of the original Prussian term Kriegsspiel. The straight forward translation from the German is ‘war considered as a game’. Undeniably, war is too serious to be considered as a game; hence the issue. A more meaningful and helpful translation is ‘war considered using gaming mechanics. This immediately points to the heart of what wargaming is, and what it offers. War considered using gaming mechanics alludes to elements such as: rules, objectives, scenarios, processes, players, umpires, analysis, friction, uncertainty, chance and luck.

These terms are far more acceptable (although ‘players’ is replaced by ‘Training Audience’ or ‘Investigation Team’ in some situations). Indeed, many of them are enshrined in our doctrine, training procedures and analytical processes – and they all stem from the original Prussian Kriegsspiel.

The 7 elements of a wargame

The terms listed above also point us towards the 7 elements that constitute a wargame. These are:

  1. Aim and objectives
  2. A scenario
  3. Players
  4. Data bases
  5. Models or simulations
  6. Rules, procedures and umpires
  7. Analysis

A common theme in this site is that the model, or simulation, does not constitute the wargame. It (they) are but one element – often called the ‘tool set’ – and support the whole, but they are not the wargame. Furthermore, although they are increasingly computerised, neither the model nor data base need necessarily reside within a computer. The ‘model’ could be an umpire who makes decisions regarding game events or outcomes, and the ‘data base’ could be a hard copy staff handbook – or even the same umpire’s brain! For example Course of Action, Seminar and Decision Wargames all remain largely ‘mandraulic’, while Matrix Games are adjudicated entirely by an umpire or adjudication team. At the other end of this wargaming spectrum are huge computer assisted exercises with a distributed training audience in many different countries using federated simulation systems, ‘live’ feeds from virtual simulations, exercise management tools and multiple data bases to coordinate events and inject lists.

A definition of wargaming

The 7 elements listed above constitute a wargame but do not define what it is. Doctrinal definitions of a wargame – and its purpose – are rare and, usually, imprecise. The NATO definition of a wargame is: ‘A simulation, by whatever means, of a military operation involving two or more opposing forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real life situation.’ Some of the elements above are included but the definition could be applied to most military activities short of actual operations; it is therefore too broad to be useful.

Interestingly, the NATO definition above is adapted from Peter Perla’s 1990 book, so let’s turn to the original for a fuller definition:

‘A warfare model or simulation, 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 representing the opposing sides.’
Perla, P. The Art of Wargaming, Naval Institute Press, 1990, p.274

Note that, in 1990, the ‘model’ was not synonymous with ‘simulation’. Note also the exclusion of ‘actual military forces’, which has implications for the classification of live and virtual simulations as ‘wargames’.

An updated version of Peter Perla’s definition, and the one we currently use, 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 the actors, factions, factors and frictions pertinent to those military activities.’

This definition, and how it can benefit your wargames, is discussed further in an LBS Blog called ‘What, actually, is a Wargame; and why does this matter to you?’ Please read the comments at the bottom of the Blog.

Different types of wargame

And this begs the question ‘what types of wargame are there?’ The diagram below illustrates a simple wargame taxonomy, and introduces the notion that all wargaming is related to supporting decisions and decision makers. However, the distinction as to whether a wargame is designed to help decision makers better at making decisions (training) or to help people make better real-world decisions (analytical) is crucial. So, too, is the distinction between training individual decision makers and training command teams. These nuances are critical in the design, development and delivery of a wargame and so must be understood.

Techniques that support wargaming

Wargaming supports activities in each of the bottom tier of boxes in the above diagram. Note should be made at this point of various supporting techniques.

First, Course of Action Wargaming. This widely used technique fits into the ‘Assistance to Operations’ box and deserves special attention due to the significant benefits it can bring, its broad applicability – but its continuing misapplication. You will find an article on the Resources page dedicated to the effective use of Course of Action (COA) Wargames.

Another key technique is Experimentation, which is used to support Defence Acquisition and Assistance to Operations. Experimentation is: ‘the application of the experimental method to the solution of complex defense capability problems, potentially across the full spectrum of conflict types, such as warfighting, peace enforcement, humanitarian relief and peace keeping’ (Guide for understanding and implementing Defense Experimentation (GUIDEx), The Technical Cooperation Programme, 2006).

The final activity worth noting at this point is Operational Analysis (Operational Research). This can be used to support all wargaming and the development of wargame models, and is ‘a general term used to describe the application of scientific and mathematical methods to the analysis of problems for military decision making’ (UK Dstl Support to Operations Cell, 2005).

The purpose of wargaming

So, that’s wargaming defined, with areas of use categorised and key supporting techniques highlighted. But what is it for? What does it do? Herein lies the root of the continuing misapplication of wargaming across defence; each area where the technique is used (the lower tier boxes in the diagram above) has a different aim and therefore requires a different variant of wargame. There is no ‘one size fits all’, either for the wargame or – especially – in any supporting simulation(s).

The general purpose of all wargaming is ‘to immerse participants in an environment with the required level of realism to improve their decision making ability and/or the actual decisions they make.’

The specific aim of a wargame in the different areas that use the technique will be as diverse as each separate event. They could range from ‘improve the battalion command team’s ability to make decisions with incomplete information’ to ‘assist the Prime Minister decide whether to build 2 new aircraft carriers – or re-locate the RAF to the Falkland Islands.’ The aim might be no more than to make decision makers better understand the nature of decision making; indeed, some argue that this is the only realistic output from all wargames.

Training and educational aims will vary widely but are generally related to improving decision making skills in commanders and their staff. Some generalised possibilities in the analytical/research domain, all of which pertain to making better real-world decisions, are:

  • COA Wargame (Assistance to Operations): ‘To identify risks and issues in a forming plan for subsequent analysis.’
  • Experimentation: ‘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.’
  • Acquisition: ‘Increase the decision maker’s confidence by providing a traceable, logical and valid path to recommendations.’

Each application of the wargaming technique requires a different approach. But, at the very least, all wargames should allow decision-makers to better understand the nature of decision making. Done well, a wargame should also enable better real-world decisions to be made or people to become better decision-makers.

Wargame variants

Variations of professional wargames include (but are not limited to):

  • Command Post Exercises (CPX)
  • Computer Assisted Exercises (CAX)
  • Seminar Wargames
  • Decision Games
  • Crisis Management Exercises (CMX)
  • Course of Action Wargames (and COA validation wargames, which are slightly different)
  • Experimentation

These span an immense number of situations, and range from an entirely ‘mandraulic’ BOGSAT (Bunch of Guys Sat Around a Table) to federations of simulations distributed around the world. They remain, however, wargames.

Simulations in support of wargames

The simulation is not the wargame! The distinction must be drawn between the wargame and the models, simulations, applications and tools that support wargames. Simulations in the military are classified as live, virtual or constructive:

  • Live. Real people using real systems. For example soldiers using laser emitters and receivers to simulate fires, or real aircraft fitted with emitters and sensors.
  • Virtual. Real people using simulated systems. For example a tank crew in a simulated tank operating in a virtual environment.
  • Constructive. Simulated people using simulated systems. For example a HQ giving orders to simulated subordinate forces based on a simulated operational picture. Constructive simulations can be further sub-divided into:
    • High resolution entity level simulations that show individual platforms (tanks, ships, aircraft), soldiers (or small squads of soldiers), buildings etc.
    • Aggregated simulations that collect together military force elements to show units, formations and task forces as icons on a operational picture.

The gap between high resolution and aggregated simulations is closing. Another trend to note is that of sTimulation: the prompting of real C2 systems by simulations so that wargame participants see only real-world operational command information system (opCIS) displays. There is also a trend to link live, virtual and constructive simulations. This is something that should only be done if it supports the event’s objectives, not just if it is technically feasible. Some simulations are real-time, others use a time-stepped approach; both approaches are valid for specific situations and, conversely, not applicable to others.

The wider technical tool set

There are then a myriad of other supporting applications and tools that support the wargame: exercise management tools that coordinate Master Events and Master Injects Lists (MEL/MIL); scenario management tools; geo tools; targeting data bases and so forth – the list is long, and growing.

The required level of realism

There is a natural inclination among the military to immerse decision makers by default in as realistic environment as possible. This might be a valid approach in an analytical/research wargame, where outcomes need to be as close to reality as possible in order to ensure the best possible decision (logical, traceable for audit purposes, and valid). It will probably apply to mission specific training (NATO’s ‘Train as you fight’ maxim) set in the Contemporary Operating Environment. But it is not necessarily sensible in many training/educational wargames where outcomes only need to be good enough to support the Training Objectives (reasonable, actionable by the Training Audience and traceable for purposes of After Action Review ). The level of realism is dependent on the type of wargame and the aim and objectives; the assumption that every wargame should represent ‘The War’ as opposed to ‘A War’ needs to be examined.

Wargame structures and processes

Finally, the structure and processes of a wargame must be mentioned. While it is important to get all of the elements right, it is the structures and processes that enable the wargame activies that are the key to a successful event. As Çayirci and Marinčič state in Computer Assisted Exercises and Training:

‘Perhaps the most challenging part of a CAX is the design of a CAX structure and the creation/management of the organizational entities in a CAX structure, which is typically made up of three main components: training audience, exercise control and exercise support. The composition of these entities changes from a CAX to another, and the successful conduct of a CAX depends more on the correct composition of exercise components than on the efficient tackling of technical issues.’
Computer Assisted Exercises and Training: A Reference Guide, John Wiley & Sons, 2009, p.16

In other words, and to paraphrase Bill Clinton, It’s the process, stupid!

The diagram below illustrates a generic setup for a training/educational wargame and the information flows that might be required to and from the exercise control (Excon) organisation. The roles, structures and processes will differ from event to event. Each must be fully considered and deriving from the Training Objectives in all cases.

It is sometimes sensible to operate the Excon cells as a single ‘Rainbow’ Cell that covers all cell functions and shares expertise. This avoids stovepiping and helps ensure all cells have access to SMEs.

Note that different nations sometimes use different colours to explain the role of the cells.

It is worth reiterating Çayirci and Marinčič’s point that these process, Excon roles and so forth usually prove to be the weak links that cause wargame events to fail, or at least fail to deliver to potential. Time must be spent getting them right. Suggested ways to achieve this can be found on the How we do it page.