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Common mistakes in wargaming

Wargaming in the military was originally conceived to be an objective arbiter of ideas and plans. The Imperial German Staff, the originators of Kreigspeil, wargamed plans critical to the success of a campaign in the full knowledge that the fate of the German Empire relied upon successful outcomes. Cynics out there will say “ah, but they lost”. The truth is, the initial war-plans they tested to wage war against Russia in the East and Belgium and France in the west in 1914, were arguably, a resounding success until interference by the Imperial German staff’s own planners on the ground disrupted them.

After all, wargaming enables commanders and decision-makers test their plans and to fail if necessary without risk and make amendments accordingly. It was well known in the Imperial German General Staff that the process had to offer participants on each side the chance of success according to the relevant strength and weaknesses of their forces. They were prepared for failure.

All of us play games. Many of the off the shelf games we play are the entertainment versions of wargames. None of us would purchase or participate in a game where the outcomes were completely predetermined against us. Nobody wants to play to lose.

Over the past years we have noticed the trend in military decision-making which misuses wargaming to validate favourable predetermined outcomes. In other words, the good guys always win. Blue team gets tea and medals. We have found it has become problematic to reintroduce the concept of wargaming as an entirely adversarial process with the inherent risks that allows either side the chance to win. In its place we have frequently noticed, the use of hybrids and Rehearsal of Concept drills (ROC-drill) to validate plans and concepts to the extent that even ROC-drills are now being called wargames. The distinction between these has become blurred to the point of non-recognition. A ROC-drill is not a wargame, and we find it frustrating and obstructive that is routinely described as such. We often come across exercises described as Wargames which are simply PowerPoint ‘brief offs’ with a representation of the ground by a crude model on the floor, or a map pinned to a wall and never referred to.

For your reading pleasure, we are going to outline the common mistakes we habitually encounter in wargaming. This should enable you to elevate your wargames from simply being a validation of your own assumptions to a rigorous test of your planning. Go beyond a ROC-drill!

#1 Assumptions are the mother of all f*ck ups

Never assume success. In our experience, we have see to many examples of assumptive behaviour. For example: assuming the enemy will behave in exactly the you way you want them to. You would not tell an opposing sports team how to play against you, now would you? The basic assumption that you will win invalidates completely the exercise. A wargame should test and refute your assumptions. Assumption leads to inherent bias which has the effect of participants rejecting the data generated and outcomes.

#2 Inherent bias of facilitators and adjudicators

Selecting facilitators and adjudicators from the exercising party leads to an obvious bias. Hence, the wargame runs the risk that it is skewed in favour of the “blue team.” A facilitator must be from an outside entity and be neutral between all the parties in the game. Adjudication must fair, impartial and balanced. It should not act as a reinforcing bias to the “blue team”. The adjudication team must take decisions based on the information and data generated during the wargame.

#3 Wrong or ill-prepared participants

Too often, participants are ill-prepared coming in to the wargame. Many simply do not understand that a wargame is an adversarial process and simply want their opinions reinforced. Often they have not taken the time or effort required to learn the material and prepare correctly for their role. Further, subject matter experts (SMEs) do not understand the wargame process and simply grandstand their opinions and experiences, not connected to the point or the purpose of the wargame itself.

#4 Incorrect depictions of the environment

In this urbanised world your tanks are always parked on somebody’s lawn. Wargames must reflect the reality of the environment that they represent. This means participants cannot exist in a bubble. The civil environment needs to be incorporated and accurately as possible represented in a wargame.

For example: ignoring a large civilian population simply because it is in your area of operations and might upset your beautifully developed plan will defeat the objective of the game.

#5 Failure to learn

Wargaming is the perfect environment in which to learn from failure. Only by failing one can improve. There is little point undertaking an exercise in wargaming if you choose to ignore the outcomes or the generated data. Participants should be allowed to fail without fear of retribution. In our experience to many wargame participants play it safe. Conflict contains inherent risk. Wargaming thus provides military professionals to stress test limits of risk.

Furthermore, a competent group of SMEs will give outputs and not their opinions. Failure to learn from the experience and expertise of the SMEs during the game also invalidates the game’s purpose.

In these days of constrained or transitioning defence budgets, why would you develop plans, then exercise them in a wargame (or an exercise) and then fail to apply the lessons? That is a waste of time, resources and money. Check your wargame against our five observations. Suspend your assumptions, pick the right facilitators and SMEs, make sure all participants have a role in the decision-making process and are fully prepared. Make sure you are reflecting as realistic an environment as possible and learn and apply the lessons. Make sure you are gaming for impact and not a space filler on the training programme. Above all, enjoy the process and have some fun.

Photo taken during a recent wargame for students in Deflt © GS&A

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