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Manual vs digital wargames

In one of our recent blogposts, we dismissed the notion of simply relying on computer systems to run or support wargames. Of course, we expected - and got - some flak for this. Yes, our statement is quite a bold one. However, it is one that we believe that’s applicable for not only recreational wargamers and hobby wargaming, but in running and supporting major exercises and training events.

We completely accept and support the idea that for certain training and educational purposes computer wargames and wargame models and systems can be very useful indeed. Especially within the context of the armed forces. Indeed, we sometimes use our own computer-based Combat Calculator in support of some of the wargames and simulations we run for clients.

As much as manual wargames can do, these computer wargame systems can serve as didactic instruments to provide training audiences with rich information or data that affect their decision-making. Hence, there is no reason why both cannot sit together.

We've worked with a variety of computer based wargame simulations, such as JOCASTS and Steel Beast, over the past few years. We have seen these wargame simulation systems being used with various levels of effectiveness. The same can be said about manual wargames. Hence, it is important to know what variables to weigh in your decision when deciding on the type of wargame system you would like to use for your wargames / exercises.

Below you will find our quick overview of the most important variables that we believe should influence your decision-making when deciding to use a manual or digital wargame system.


  • Manual wargaming is excellent for planning, for consideration of COAs and for dynamic scripting purposes in Exercise Control set ups. Using manual wargaming only is particularly valuable when budget constraints don't allow the procurement costs and set up time to use large computer-based systems. And don't forget that computer systems require operators too.

  • Digital wargaming can be incredibly valuable for planning and executing (joint) operations, training large scale audiences and providing accurate time-sensitive information up to the individual unit level. They can provide a "as close to the real-thing" experience as possible.

Engagement of the Training Audiences

  • As an intellectual exercise, manual wargaming offers the training audiences a platform to learn and improve within a strictly controlled environment. It is happening in the room or on the Excon platform, enabling the training audience to apply their thoughts and intellect on the spot. Wargaming around a table is communal and empowering. Gathering the Excon team around the bird table twice a day is an incredibly valuable exercise in maintaining cohesion and dynamism in an exercise.

  • Digital simulations are more often used during large scale exercises. They tend to provide information that influences branch and cross-branch decision-making. Here, the information is relayed through operators, information managers, and other key personnel. The actual decision-making tends to be fragmented.


  • Manual wargames tend to be limited in scale as information dissemination across the Training Audiences tends to 'go slow'. The operational environment is relatively static based on each turn and adjudication.

  • Flexible: a digital wargaming simulation will allow you to disseminate “live” information to whomever at any moment. It is possible engage in current operations with realtime outcomes. Many computer systems do not model or reflect the Comprehensive environment, for example calculating collateral damage if an engagement is fought in an urban environment.


  • In a manual wargame any type of geography or information can be shown if it has been considered in its design. Manual shifting from a strategic picture (i.e. nation-wide) to a tactical picture (i.e. a city or neighbourhood) can be time consuming and labour intensive.

  • In a digital wargame any type of information can be displayed as long as it is considered in the design of the wargame model. The adjudication of the model, i.e. adding new icons or information that can interact with the other elements of the model, can be labour intensive and costly. Plus, be aware, the system can be overloaded and thus crash. We have seen this! Training audiences being mischievous. Then you have very expensive stuff in your Excon, doing absolutely nothing. So, always have a contingency plan prepared. You can't crash a manual wargame.


  • Manual wargames tend to be affordable. The main cost is manpower and simple materials (map and counters).

  • Digital wargames can be costly as they are the outcome of (often years of) investment in research & development, need ongoing maintenance and during an exercise require terminals and operators, as well as support staff. That said, the cost per person can be low during large scale exercises, especially when contrasted to the training impact that is possible because of the volume of detailed information generated.


  • The accuracy of a manual wargame, sometimes supported by digital combat calculators, can be a bit skewed. It is very much dependent upon the operational analysis provided, the quality of preparation (depth of scenario, technical details of units involved, etc), and the quality of the adjudication and facilitation team. HITL and good SMEs are critical.

  • A computerised model that is adequately loaded can provide incredibly detailed information, i.e. fuel stocks level or exact rates of advance with GPS coordinates, to the training audience that can be used at any level within the simulated environment. Still, the HITL remains an important factor in the interpretation of data.


  • Where there are budget constraints, time constraints and a small TA, stand-alone manual wargaming is an excellent toolset to practice and test in an intellectually rigorous but safe environment. Fast, economical, safe, rigorous and fun

  • Large scale events, with big budgets, large TAs and plenty of time, digital wargaming provides more data, can control more 'assets' and a larger TA (or multiple TAs in separate locations).

Above we have outlined the main variables in deciding for a manual or digital wargame to support your exercise. However, there is also a third way; the hybrid option.

The Hybrid Option

When opting for a hybrid option it means that you will use a digital model supported by analogue wargaming, facilitation and adjudication. In our opinion, using a hybrid form of digital and manual wargaming provides the best of both worlds. Why?

  1. It ensures that you enable, empower and encapsulate the intellectual discourse of manual wargaming during plenary sessions and in exercise facilitation, whilst providing the training audience with in-depth “real-time” data that suit any of their training requirements.

  2. Manual wargaming ensures that the computers are kept in check. It makes sure that the outcomes of the digital wargame system do not overrule the decision-making of the Exercise Director and key figures in Exercise Control. Thus, you should be able to prevent training objective snafus, such as unforeseen defeats and wins of the TA or the Enemy. In one instance we had to calm down a Maritime Component Cell after a naval battle resulted in the loss of 9,000 personnel, although we did have to point out that these things happened if you fire over a hundred Exocets in one engagement or hit ships with nine Harpoon missiles.

  3. Remember that compared to computers, humans are super-computers, so do not be blinded by the 'computer bling'. People think having lots of computer screens in an Excon or gaming venue makes it look more professional, when our experience is that people tend to hide behind them, play solitaire or browse the internet for holiday villas in southern Europe (yes, we've seen this frequently). People also tend to immerse themselves in IT problems when they occur instead of focusing on the exercise or game. 'Sorry boss, computer has crashed' or 'Can't log in' are the two most common phrases we hear. If you do use an IT support system (and can afford it) for your game or exercise, make it work for you and make sure you aren't working for it. The ideal solution for a large event is the hybrid system. The manual wargame allows human control of the game or the exercise and dynamically drives and scripts it and the IT system can provide the decision support data.

There you have it. Some variables that you should consider prior to choosing whether you will use an analogue, fully digital or hybrid wargame system.

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