In the January 2016 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, LtCol Gregory A. Thiele argues that Marines Ought to Play More Games! (subscription required):
Wargaming can provide Marines with a better understanding of the nature of war. While the conduct of war changes, the nature of war (friction, uncertainty, violence, etc.) does not. In addition, MCDP-1 reminds Marines that, “the enemy is not an inanimate object … While we try to impose our will on the enemy, he resists us and seeks to impose his own will on us. Appreciating this dynamic interplay between opposing human wills is essential to understanding the fundamental nature of war.”5 (Emphasis added.) It is critical that Marines find ways to incorporate a hostile, independent will into training if we are to be prepared for the battlefield.
One method of introducing an opposing will into training events is to conduct free-play force-on-force exercises. Although MCDP-1 recommends free-play force-on-force exercises, very few Marine Corps units train in this manner.6 Current training often takes the form of attempting to master techniques and procedures. While there may be some value in this, it is far outweighed by the inward focus that results. Exposed to such a training regime over time, Marines acquire a distorted view of war as a one-sided affair in which the actions of the enemy are largely inconsequential. Such sterile preparation is a poor environment from which to draw an understanding of war. Wargaming is a simple, low-cost method of introducing an opposing will into training. Ideally, wargaming complements a training regime that consists largely of free-play force-on-force exercises.
When played against an opponent, wargames allow participants to experience conflict with a hostile, independent will. In order to win, Marines will be forced to think constantly about the enemy, how they can thwart the enemy’s plans, and how they can accomplish their own. Marines will also learn to remain flexible in their approach. Well-balanced games will force players to be creative and resourceful, maximizing any advantage—no matter how slight—in order to win. Wargames will develop in participants an outward focus on the outcome desired, rather than an inward focus on process and methods.
Wargamers will also gain a better understanding of other characteristics of war. The internal focus that predominates in many Marine Corps units often leads to processes that are ineffective in combat (for instance, an operations order that is too long, too detailed, or too prescriptive). Playing wargames will remind Marines that military actions rarely occur exactly as planned. Wargaming helps develop an understanding of the need for plans that are adaptable. Wargaming should help leaders to craft a flexible plan, a clear commander’s intent and an order that enables subordinates to use their individual creativity in unforeseen circumstances.
Wargaming will also provide Marines with the vicarious experiences that are very difficult, or too expensive, to accomplish under normal conditions. How many Marines have maneuvered a brigade, division or MEF/corps on the battlefield? Wargames allow Marines to simulate such maneuvers and, with careful thought, Marines can begin to glimpse some of the challenges that they may face in leading such organizations or in planning their employment. More, they can gain an understanding of the context within which smaller units decide and act.
Wargaming can have a synergistic effect when paired with a carefully structured professional reading program. Because wargaming often requires a greater degree of involvement than does reading, the fidelity of the vicarious experience may be greater than that provided by reading a book on the same subject. Marines can select battles and campaigns that interest them, read about the campaign, and then play a wargame dealing with the same battle or campaign. Due to the great variety of wargames available, many battles can be wargamed at the tactical level and the campaigns of which they formed a part can be gamed as well in order to provide operational-level context regarding how and why the battle occurred. Such structured gaming may lead to a greater interest in the battle or campaign and even more reading, lighting a fire of interest in the individual Marine as he tries to understand historical events.
By their very nature, wargames are also progressive tactical decision games. As the game develops, each player is presented with situations with which he must cope and for which he must devise solutions. Players are required to make a large number of decisions in each game. Every new situation acts as a template that may assist leaders in making recognition-primed decisions in similar real-life situations.
When played as a team, wargames can assist seniors and juniors in building implicit communication. In such team games, decisions must be clearly communicated to subordinates so that orders may be properly executed. As time goes on, subordinates will begin to develop a sense of what their leaders expect from them with shorter communications and perhaps even when orders are entirely lacking. Such implicit communication will build trust between leaders and led and facilitate decentralized decision making.
Thiele provides a short list of recommended games—all of them digital, with no manual wargames among them. Phil Sabin’s excellent book Simulating War is recommended for further reading, as is Martin van Creveld’s rather more bizarre Wargames.
At Foreign Policy, Tom Ricks has taken up the call, asking for suggestions as to what (commercial) wargames might be added to the list. He also cites Ellie Bartel’s piece on getting the most out of wargames (although Ellie is largely discussing analytical games, rather than the training/educational/experiential games that the Thiele article addresses).
h/t Ryan Kuhns