Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

US Army War College Strategic Wargame Program

The following report was written for PAXsims by COL Jerry Hall. COL Hall is an Army Simulations Officer, and Director of the Strategic Simulations Division at the Center for Strategic Leadership, US Army War College. He can be reached at

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.



Ashburn Gate, Carlisle Barracks.

Whereas lectures and articles merely disseminate information and ideas, wargames allow active learning in which not only the players but also teachers and game designers are confronted with continuous and often unexpected questions and challenges as they explore, experiment and compete within the artificial model which the game provides. (Philip Sabin , “The Educational value of Wargaming.”

The US Army War College (USAWC) recently implemented a new special program, the Strategic Wargame Program (SWP). The SWP uses commercial and government wargames – physical boardgames, miniatures, and computer simulations – to enhance the educational experience of its students. The SWP offers optional afternoon and evening wargame events tied to the USAWC Core Curriculum. Typical wargames used in the program are at the strategic level, relevant to the curriculum, are easy to teach and play, can be ideally completed in a few hours, include command and control aspects, and can support multiple players or teams of players.


USAWC Strategic Wargame Program overview.

Each event in the program is moderated by an expert (when possible the game designer), and facilitated by experienced players from the USAWC faculty, staff, and students or the local wargame community. Each SWP session begins with the moderator providing introductory remarks and a game orientation. Following the introduction, the facilitators lead players through the wargame for two to three hours, then the moderator leads an after action review (AAR), focused on how the wargame supports USAWC learning objectives.


Fire in the Lake promotion sign.

The inaugural SWP event was Fire in The Lake, moderated by Volko Ruhnke, on Wednesday, 30 March 2016. Fire in The Lake is Volume IV in GMT’s COIN (Counterinsurgency) Series.

From the GMT website:

     Fire in the Lake dives headlong into the momentous and complex battle for South Vietnam.   A unique multi-faction treatment of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake will take 1 to 4 players on US heliborne sweeps of the jungle and Communist infiltration of the South, and into inter-allied conferences, Saigon politics, interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, air defense of Northern infrastructure, graduated escalation, and media war.

Renowned designer and modern warfare expert Mark Herman joins COIN Series creator Volko Ruhnke for a collaborative production not to be missed.  Fire in the Lake features the same card-assisted counterinsurgency game system as GMT’s Andean Abyss, Cuba Libre, and A Distant Plain. Each Fire in the Lake faction presents fresh challenges:

  • As the Viet Cong, you must light the people’s fire for the Revolution.  How long do you build in the shadows, and when do you emerge to set the spark?  Your big brother from the North will draw the enemy’s attention away from you, but be careful that he does not take over your movement from the inside!
  • As the Republic of Vietnam, you have a big brother too.  He will help you build a strong Army, control the country, and kill the Communists, but at what cost to your traditional way of governing?  Should you fight hard with the forces and resources that you have, or leave that to the US and just focus on strengthening your political hold?
  • As North Vietnam, you have friends feeding you resources as well.  But you must see to funneling them southward through a well-developed logistical trail, then decide which moment is right for your painstakingly assembled forces to venture from the relative safety of Laos and Cambodia to control the South.
  • As the United States, you have the firepower and the mobility.  A certain number of US casualties is to be expected, but too many will break the public’s support for South Vietnam and the War.  And your air power and incursions into Laos or Cambodia can help or turn counterproductive.  Together with the ARVN, the fight is winnable.

The event began with a facilitator lunch, hosted by Volko Ruhnke, to discuss the best practices for the facilitation of the game to the faculty, staff, and students.  The volunteer facilitators consisted of USAWC faculty and staff, as well as civilian wargamers from as far away as Quantico, Virginia. Their role was to explain the game mechanics to the players and guide them through play after Volko’s introduction.


Facilitator lunch. From left front: Bill Powers (Quantico, VA), Jonathan Squibb (Camp Hill, PA), Jim Cooney (USAWC Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute), COL Jerry Hall (USAWC Staff), Victor Schwartzmiller (USAWC Staff), Volko Ruhnke, LTC Barsness.

After lunch the team set-up five copies of the game, reviewed the rules and variants, and discussed how to gradually introduce the players to the game. Volko recommended the 1965-67 Short Scenario (Westy’s War) with two variants to mitigate a common US exit strategy technique. After the players arrived Volko provided them an overview of the strategic setting for the game and turned it over to the facilitators.


Volko Ruhnke (center) explaining Fire in the Lake to players. The player to the far right is an International Fellow from Vietnam.

After two hours of game play, Volko led the players through a wide-ranging AAR discussion on the game design mechanics and principles focused on two lessons from the USAWC curriculum: escalation in Vietnam and COIN theory. Players liked the conflicting objectives of the four factions: the US seeks to gain popular support and ultimately withdraw forces, while the Viet Cong seek to undermine popular support and develop infrastructure in the form of bases; the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) seeks to control territory and increase patronage to maintain control, while the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) seeks to wrest control of territories from the COIN players and increase its infrastructure in the form of bases and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.


Fire in the Lake game board (reproduced at 150%) looking down from the north.

During the AAR several players questioned the largely deterministic nature of combat interactions in the game, such as assaults and sweeps (vice stochastic or more random outcomes). Volko explained that this was a game design decision to streamline game play, and elaborated that while tactical outcomes may be more random, the overall outcome of a campaign over several months was more predictable.


Three simultaneous four-player games of Fire in the Lake.

Overall, the inaugural Strategic Wargame Program event with Volko Ruhnke and Fire in the Lake was a success. If you are interested in establishing a similar program, feel free to contact the author. Some keys to success:

  • Plan early and account for possible changes to your institution’s calendar!
  • When possible, invite the game designer to moderate the event. They can provide key insights into the game design.
  • Provide relevant institutional lesson plans to the moderator in advance so he/she can tailor the AAR to support learning objectives.
  • Identify and train a group of facilitators who are experts in the game. This leaves the moderator free to check on all of the games in progress.
  • Advertise to get the word out…electronic marquees, Facebook, institutional websites, and mass emails all help (see below).
  • Have enough copies of the game available to accommodate your audience.
  • Reproduce larger copies of the gameboard to facilitate multiple players or teams of players. Educational use allows you to create one copy per game that you own. The maps used were reproduced at 150%.
  • After the event, Volko and the facilitators headed to a local game store and café for dinner and more games, including the latest installment of the COIN series, Liberty or Death!

Electronic marquee advertising at one of the entrance gates to Carlisle Barracks.

COL Jerry Hall
Strategic Simulations Division, Center for Strategic Leadership
US Army War College

One response to “US Army War College Strategic Wargame Program

  1. Hays 05/04/2016 at 12:58 pm

    Good to see this, leaders can get an insight on a tactical and strategic level.

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