The Battle to Teach Wargaming

In a War on the Rocks piece a couple of weeks ago Dr. Jim Lacy  recounts the travails and successes of using wargaming as a teaching tool in his Marine Corps War College classes. It caused a bit of a dust up over on National Interest. It resonated with me as I was in a similar sort of situation a couple of weeks ago, teaching a group of 30+ scientists, engineers and analysts about wargaming, decision-making and naval operations. It seemed in the cat-herding of all of it that I was living Dr. Lacy’s quote:

Then, the big day arrived … and I failed miserably.

Well, thankfully the students didn’t seem to notice too much… While I set the bar a fair bit too high for both they and myself, most were having too much fun to notice I was whirling like dervish from table to table answering questions tearing out what little hair I have left, having insufficiently prepared them.  I even had two gentlemen from the Army War College attending to see what this “NUWC” place was doing teaching a class in wargaming?

Well, as a “Warfare Center” NUWC (Naval Undersea Warfare Center – sister to the Naval Surface Warfare Center) has broad responsibility within the Navy connecting the Science and Technology (S&T) community, the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) community, the Acquisition Community and the In-service Engineering Agent (ISEA) communities all to the Fleet.  We even have a nice Bridge logo appropriate to all that:


So with all that stuff going on to support the Fleet, we must be WAAAY to busy to be playing games, right? Well, argued I, if they are the right kind of games, then maybe we should MAKE time to play them if we are serious about thinking more creatively so as to get programs “across the bridge” more effectively. If the desire is to explore how technologies can be combined in new ways “building Boyd snowmobiles” yellow sticky drills and brainstorming sessions only go so far. Pitting  capabilities against each other in an operational context to see what the advantages and disadvantages provides more comprehensive insights than discussing options alone.

The idea to teach scientists, engineers and analysts about the Fleet they are supporting by teaching them to play wargames has gained traction and is one of the lines of effort in the NAVSEA Warfare center’s Fleet Engagement Community of Practice. Those efforts will hopefully complement the re-invigoration of wargaming in traditional in traditional venues and help “democratize” wargaming other places where it can provide opportunities tho think more deeply about warfighting challenges and how to address them. “High Density Learning” to go along with efforts focusing on “High Velocity Learning”.

So now enters hubris.

Connection’s game lab last year was my first attempt to teach a large group of people a wargame. I tried to make what I thought was a simple game. Simple for someone who knew what “a complicated game” was (e.g. GMT’s A World at War or Avalon Hill/MMP “Advanced Squad Leader”). The result was my A2ADventure game derived from the little “SubHunt” game I did for “Bring your Child to Work Day” at NUWC several years ago. If I could teach SubHunt to 7 -12 year olds in about 15 minues, I thought I could teach A2ADventure to a group of folks at a wargame conference in an hour. So I gave myself 90 minutes. Which was a good thing because as often happens at conferences, I lost have to time to things running late. So now, flustered and off my game, I tried to teach the game in 45 minutes. It was a LOOONG 45 minutes. A good many people seemed intrigued and I had a 3 hour timeslot the next day for actual gameplay, so I was hopeful. To make a long story shor, I had about 40 people engaged with the game, with 8 or 10 really whooping it up. A lot of tables didn’t know where to start and hadn’t really been able to get much further than “talk about what they might do if they got around to played the game”. Which is fine, that is about as far as 80% of “professional wargames” ever get. It pointed out to me a vital point to remember teaching non-wargamers about wargames:

Familiar with the rules doesn’t mean familiarity with what you do with the pieces to win!

Knowing the rules and knowing what to do with that information in the context of competition are two different things and BOTH need to be taught to new players. Having observed that issue rear its head at Connections, I of course took that into account in my new course! Well, not so much…

So now enters a bad memory as well as hubris.

As often happens when we desire to do great things and accomplish worthy deeds, or otherwise get all liquored up about something cool, we forget to remember what we did the last time. Or at least I did. Obviously. I figured I could do pretty much the same thing I did for Connections, and having learned from that experience, would do better this time. However, intervention from the rest of my day job and life in general meant my plan for using 3 games to illustrate points over 3 days got pretty compressed. I had already delayed the course once, and in hindsight should have again to be better prepared. Interest can wax and wane precipitously, and I felt I needed to get something “out there” to get the ball rolling. I pressed on. I had put together 20 odd copies of the A2ADventure game for connections, 4 copies each of 3 games didn’t sound that daunting, and I had some printing support from our graphics department this time. I forgot that the issue at Connections was not the physical components, but communicating to the players what to do with them. Again its not just giving them the rules, but insight into the strategizing process – thinking through how to accomplish an objective in the game, given the constraints of the rules.Walking through the game can help, but compounding my bad decision-making was the excitement with which I learned there were over 30 people who had signed up for the 16 slots in the course. Obviously that is great – run the course once and get the bugs out, then run the course again. Well, thought I, having a larger group see how many others interested in gaming there were, and of course secure in my knowledge of how much I learned at Connections, I said “sure”. Dopey me.

Once more into the breech…

The title of the course is “Wargaming, Naval operations, and Decision-making. Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin handled most of the “…and decision-making” while I endeavored to give an overview of wargaming, operational art and how the current navy operates. The basic syllabus was “death by powerpoint” in the morning – followed by a gaming session all afternoon. The general flow was to talk about “strategy games” in general – not “strategic level of war” on Day 1. Dr. Downes Martin the covered “what does it mean to be a professional wargamerDay 2 covered military operations in general (including a bit on the difference between the “complex” and the “complicated” in theory) and an introduction to “operational art” using slides from a US Naval War College brief – trying to get at the “what do you do with the pieces” in an operational level wargame. Then the 3rd day a bit of recap followed by a brief on the U.S. Navy and how it operates. Not connecting the lectures closely enough with teaching about associated game mechanics left many students scratching their heads. Most noodled their way through.

The games I used for the afternoon “practical” sessions were:

Day 1 “Seapowers” designed by the Center for Naval Analyses (Peter Perla and Al Nofi, developed by Chris Weuve and Mike Markowitz – many thanks to Dr. Perla for giving me permission to share it!) for the (now disestablishing) Chief of Naval Operation’s Strategic Studies Group back in 2000. It puts players in the position of developing a Fleet for one of four Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, and the US) from 1875 to WWI. This period saw arguably the greatest confluence of naval innovations in naval history – from sailing ships with steam engines, to the super-dreadnought battleship in some 40 years. Players must balance building an extant fleet, with developing technology for an improved Fleet – within the context of the type of naval warfare (Sea Control, Sea Denial, Littoral Defense, or Commerce Raiding) the country’s national strategy calls for.

Day 2 I used a game on the Leyte campaign using components from GMT’s “A World at War” enlarged and mounted on foamcore. The game used a “bucket of dice” approach not unlike “Victory in the Pacific” and used pennies as “logistics tokens” (Q: gee where can I get high quality generic metal disks to use as tokens for cheap? A: Any Bank!). A used this operation at the behest of friends form the Army War College distance learning department. The idea was that the game started with a “planning phase” wherein the players collaborated on a “sketch course of action” for the first 2 weeks of operations – in particular where they were moving their logistics tokens.The US player moved first. The Japanese player watched and decided when to try and intercept US airstrikes or ship movements. Rolling a d6 less than the range in hexes to the intercept point triggered a successful intercept. I’m still updating the rules based on what amounted to a very productive play test session. I declared success when, upon telling everyone they could leave, most stayed to finish turns or to tell other groups their “war stories”.

This really brought home he connection of gaming as “narrative creation” with the story-telling afterward demonstrating new knowledge, and reinforcing lessons about the historical outcome. “The Japanese were just screwed – they have no logistics and the US had all those Task Forces”. responded to with “But if we would have worked together like we planned, we woulda wrecked the invasion force, you had to go all “Halsey” on us and send the land-based air after the US carriers!” “Well ya, they woulda shredded your heavy BB group if I hadn’t – I wasn’t going leave you hanging like Marines at Guadalcanal!”

And back and forth…! This even with a two and a half inch firehose of knowledge thrown at them and generally grouping around in the dark asking questions, which as they were answered, demonstrated some points Dr. Downes-Martin likes to make about indications that students are gaining proficiency with the rules, starting with asking questions about “how do I do (xxx)?” rather than “what can a (xxx) unit do?” indicating they have moved from trying to understand the rules, to strategizing about what the rules let them do (or don’t). When they start proposing new rules they have moved tot eh next level and the advanced level is achieved when they start trying to cheat (or catch one another cheating! (or at least catching them innocently not following the rules correctly.

Had I done a better job connecting the “operational art” slides to game mechanics, this day would have gone a LOT smoother. Fixing that oversight is one of the first things I’m going to fix for “round 2”. Connecting the “theory of combat” and “operational art”lessons directly to specific game mechanics is vital to getting non-gamers up to speed on how the theory and practice relate that I’m embarrassed not to have thought through its importance…twice now…

The third days game is an offshoot of the A2ADventure game to demonstrate current day fleet operations to show the capabilities and limitations of the ships and aircraft discussed in the “Introduction to Naval Forces” that is part of the day 3 package. I will be bringing this game back to Connections this year, at least as a demo, if not as part of the Game lab or game night. More on that as I further refine it this summer!

The “big takeaways” from all this are:

Do gaming stuff with interested non-gamers…even if you worry its not “soup yet”! – I hemmed and hawed for over 2 years all together “talking about doing a class” and kept convincing myself “it wasn’t ready”. Well, what it needed to “be ready” would never have become apparent to me had I not taken the risk and “just done it”.

Directly integrate “teaching the theory” with “teaching the game”. Splitting it into “theory in the morning” and “gaming in the afternoon” would have worked much better as “teach a little, game a little” throughout the day.

Use ringers – I assumed too much I would get more “actual gamers” to help herd cats. I got a lot more “interested non-gamers” than I expected! Had I arranged to have at least 4 experienced gamers in the class – 1 per game table – there wold have been much less frustrations at my inability to be in 4 places at the same time.

Start VERY simple. Using the SubHunt game in the initial “teach a little, game a little” would have gotten the right gears turning in peoples heads faster regarding “abstraction layers” and how you represent causes and effects by nesting the causes in nested game mechanics.

Reach out after you have events! We followed up the course with a management level “after action report” to let the bosses who let their personnel attend the course know what went on, what they got out of it and were honest about difficulties and specifics about how we would improve it the next time. Most importantly entice them into GOING THEMSELVES at least at some point in the future. A 1 day “executive level” course is in the works for that.

Don’t be afraid to Share!!!! Am I happy with the materials I used in the course – no – they could be SOOOO much better if I had unlimited “white space” in my workday, and more spare time at home. But I set a deadline, I did the best I could in that limited time and I’m more than happy to share that and get your feedback for improvement. Constantly refining to make it “more ready” but never pulling the trigger delayed my inordinately and I could have pulled off this course 1 year and a half ago and now have 3 sessions under belt rather than 1. Hopefully I can get a “virtual class” worth of comments from all  y’all!

One of the things I gave out to the class was my Bibliography for Naval Wargamers. I’m looking fro recommended additions (or deletions – much of what is there is from Amazon recommendations, so not entirely vetted, with the exception of the “asterisked” entries which I either have myself or wee recommended by other. The complete package of references and course material (including the things specifically linked to above) is available here. And I will try not leave 6 months between posts again! My Wargamer, Analyst, and Warfighter have been sitting in that bar far too long! I will try to move them along!

So there you have it! Let me know what you think!



About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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6 Responses to The Battle to Teach Wargaming

  1. Paul,
    I am in charge of wargaming at the Chilean Naval War College and your website has been extremely useful to me and to my students. Thanks for sharing your huge amount of good knowledge.

  2. Paul Vebber says:


    That is great to hear! If you would like to share any specific cases, I would be glad to post them here!

    Thanks again!


    • Thanks Paul.
      My main challenge has been to design an educational war game for students to apply operational art and exercise planning and conducting operations at the operational level in a maritime operations center. After eight years doing it, I still have doubts if I’m doing a good game. I will appreciate very much if you can share some thing about this issue.
      Best regards,

  3. Dunn, Michael B CIV USARMY CAC (US) says:

    Good write up. Thanks for sharing!

    Mike Dunn
    Battle Simulations Specialist
    Digital Leader Development Center
    Command and General Staff College
    100 Stimson Ave,1504II
    Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027
    (913) 684-3157

  4. Paul:
    Lacy’s article was awesome. Your blog above was fun to read. I think we have to share more of our experiences. Simulations are simply a teaching tool. They have to be used effectively for learning to be effective. Some of the things I saw in Lacy’s AAR were rookie mistakes of someone just starting out, like not having debriefing. Educators, like any learner, have to start out with simple goals and work up to more complex efforts. Students need that too. I think your discovery about directly integrating “’teaching the theory’ with ‘teaching the game.’ Splitting it into ‘theory in the morning’ and ‘gaming in the afternoon’ would have worked much better as “teach a little, game a little” throughout the day.” I have discovered that if students can make solid connections between the real world/history/theory and the abstract game mechanics, learning is seriously impeded. The students can enjoy the wargame experience, but the ‘so what?’ is diluted or lost.

    I wasn’t surprised by the “War games aren’t a perfect tool for teaching strategy” response to Lacy’s enthusiasm. Their conclusion is one that I have heard many times:
    “As professional educators, we would be letting down our students if we do not prepare them with disciplined habits of thought that are the products of a rigorous education. We believe in investing in the intellectual development of those in the profession of arms, to include a heavy dose of reading, writing in-depth analyses on complex problems, and grading that informs the students about how to improve their skills in thinking and communicating.”

    “To be a professional entails lifelong learning, requiring a commitment of time to study in preparation for action.”

    I believe that to be true… to a point. I can read and discuss juggling, study the history of juggling, and the various styles and theories. I can be very learned. However, none of that will ‘prepare me for action: to juggle.’ Only practicing juggling will complete that preparation for action. Wargames are preparation, but they are also action, where their success and failure is the teacher rather than an instructor or others critiquing their position paper.

    Best Regards, Bill

  5. Pingback: Battle of Jutland Centennial #2 | Wargaming Connection

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