The Center for a New American Security has posted the video of their recent wargame of a future militarized crisis in the East China Sea. Each turn, members of the audience chose from among the options presented by CNAS experts, who then gamed the results.
The post-game session included not only the scenario and East Asia security issues, but there also a discussion (at 1:46:35) on the value of diversity in serious gaming.
The following piece was written for PAXsims by Thomas Barnett and Lea Culver.
Thomas P.M. Barnett, Director of Research at Creek Technologies, is a NYT/WAPO bestselling author of multiple books on global affairs and US global leadership (e.g., Pentagon’s New Map). He has served in the Office of Secretary of Defense following 9/11, at the U.S. Naval War College as a Senior Strategic Researcher/Professor, and at Oak Ridge National Lab as a Visiting Strategist.
Lea Culver is the Founder/President/CEO of Creek Technologies, a former Army Intelligence Officer, and a doctoral candidate with Franklin University. Creek Technologies specializes in Information Technology and Education Support Services across the government.
Comments are welcome below.
On May 1st, the nation’s war colleges received a brutal – if pre-emptive – failing grade from the Joint Chiefs, who declared that Joint Professional Military Education schools are not producing military commanders “who can achieve intellectual overmatch against adversaries.” Because China increasingly matches our “mass” and “best technology,” the Joint Chiefs argue that America will prevail in future conflicts primarily by having more capable officers. As for those “emerging requirements” that “have not been the focus of our current leadership development enterprise” (e.g., integrating national instruments, critical thinking, creative approaches to joint warfighting, understanding disruptive technologies), please raise your hand when you hear something new.
Brutal and timely.
China’s rising naval power compelled the Joint Chiefs to identify the leadership margin between defeating, or yielding to, the People’s Liberation Army, and they judged the Defense Department’s educational institutions as presently not providing it.
So where does Joint Professional Military Education go from here? The Joint Chiefs of Staff were very clear: comprehensively integrate wargaming into a “talent management system” that produces officers who can “apply our capabilities better and more creatively” than our peer competitors. How comprehensively? Enough for future commanders to hone these skills for “thousands of hours of deliberate practice, pushing cognitive limits and intellectual performance.”
The Chief of Naval Operations’ response? Slot the Naval War College under a new Warfighting Development Directorate established within his office – specifically in Warfighting Development (N7), moving it from its traditional spot in Manpower, Personnel, Training, and Education (N1). The institutional signal here is clear: Forge a far more direct link between education and warfighting – a bridge best captured by wargaming.
True, we have witnessed some bureaucratic waffling since then, most notably in the announced “Education for Seapower” program review by the new Secretary of Navy, but that sort of institutional pushback is to be expected during a tectonic shift. Serious money remains slated for future naval education efforts ($350M annually), and, while that probably will not be enough to stand up the proposed U.S. Naval Community College, it is more than enough for the College to upgrade its wargaming program in response to the Joint Chiefs’ urgent mandate.
The Naval War College annually conducts 50-plus wargames, which is impressive, but these simulations are decidedly platform/network-centric, resulting in “quick-look” reports of high immediate interest only to Office of the Chief of Naval Operations’ sponsors. That is not Newport’s fault: it was simply responding to enduring market demand and the Chiefs just radically redefined that. The good news? The tools, technologies, and techniques that the College now needs to recast wargaming as a learner-centric enterprise are readily available – and at reasonably modest cost.
Since the birth of Network-Centric Warfare in the mid-1990s, defense firms have amassed an impressive array of capabilities under the human performance engineering rubric (oftentimes called human-centric engineering), which addresses the third dimension of modern warfare (see below) – namely, the interface between commanders and that “best technology” (systems) controlling our military “mass” (platforms). While traditional wargaming has amply explored strategy (officer-platform interface) and modern simulations plumb the depths of networked warfare (system-platform interface), human performance engineering truly completes that operational triad by rebalancing attention on the officer/system interface, in turn enhancing individual/team cognitive skills while optimizing command architectures. This is exactly what the Joint Chiefs want: systemic overmatch in cognitive skills and decision-making structures.
This vision mirrors the predominant logic coming out of Silicon Valley on the future of machine learning and artificial intelligence: both are best employed in combination with human decision-making in the so-called centaur model. So, again, China eventually matches us on platforms and systems, but we stay ahead thanks to our officers’ superior command skills augmented by cognitive computing. This is how the Joint Chiefs see Joint Professional Military Education becoming a true “strategic asset” – i.e., our winning edge in future warfare.
Such ambition compels the Naval War College to rebalance its wargaming – long skewed toward problem-centric designs – with a learner-centric emphasis on decision-making competencies. This begins by introducing advanced human performance engineering capabilities to assess officer development.
Yes, the War College has longed structured its wargames to test out competing command-and-control structures. But it has done so to ensure that students know how to use those systems as designed within a single domain context (e.g., surface, sub-surface, air), when what the Joint Chiefs now desire are commanders capable of routinely achieving combined effects across domains (air, land, sea, subsea, cyber, space) – suggesting a “multiverse” of possible command-and-control structures appliedly fluidly across the conflict spectrum. In effect, the Joint Chiefs seek the equivalent of “multilingual” officers capable of creatively commanding across domains. Ambitious yet achievable, this goal requires a sophisticated, orchestrated application of assets and technologies from multiple domains to effect an outcome that would otherwise be impossible within a single domain.
In sum, it is not enough to train officers on how to effectively communicate and coordinate actions in a joint command-and-control environment where the primary decisions involve choosing which tasks (and where and when) to hand off to other services. They need to be able to adeptly select combinations of resource from across all services to achieve those desired effects across all domains.
Instilling this sort of cross-domain ingenuity starts with more effectively data-mining joint exercises. These complex wargames generate troves of human-learning data available for capture and systematic analysis. However, the live and post-game analytic tools currently employed at Newport do not come close to comprehensively processing all available data, resulting in final reports that arrive too late to allow for a rapid and robust game-sequencing that builds upon – and integrates – previous learning and outcomes.
By promising systematic feedback on systemic performance across all three wargaming dimensions (officers, platforms, systems), human performance engineering incentivizes schools to pervasively instrument simulation environments with innovative measurement technologies (right down to player-worn sensors) of sufficient sophistication to decode cognitive processes (i.e., decision making) – applying artificial intelligence not so much to the play as to the players, because that is where “talent management” naturally applies.
In capturing and exploiting wargaming’s big data “exhaust,” Joint Professional Military Education faculty, wargamers, and research staff can “incorporate active and experiential learning to develop the practical and critical thinking skills our warfighters require.” Since human performance engineering expertise is not presently resident at military schools, there must be an infusion of private-sector talent to continuously refresh staff skills, knowledge, and innovation.
For the “Navy’s Home of Thought,” it is time to go big or go home.
The Joint Chiefs’ guidance mirrors what Naval War College researchers have argued for years: namely, the utility of teaching integrated with gaming. The most cogent expression of this was put forth by the 2015 cohort of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group, whose work on talent management accurately presaged the Joint Chief’s May mandate to finally move ahead. Now, the addition of subject-matter experts steeped in human performance engineering starts that ball rolling by asking: Which new data can be captured in a wargame? Wargaming professionals can then answer the question: What do we learn from that data? Finally, and in a reach-out to research and teaching faculty, the Naval War College as a whole asks: What should we now teach based on this new understanding?
And yes, this is yet again one of those instances where innovation within the defense community can and should spill over into similar advances across the commercial sector, where the globalization of technologies and capital have largely eliminated the West’s historical advantages over the “Rising Rest.” We either field more creative executives who can tilt that now-level playing field back to our advantage or we learn to consistently lose market shares across an emerging global middle class hungry for consumption. Gamifying our educational systems to instill cross-domain creativity is the way ahead, particularly in processing generational cohorts (e.g., Millennials, GenZs) who have grown up with gaming as a way of life.
By systematically introducing human performance engineering to wargaming, the Naval War College establishes itself as a central repository to shape and ultimately drive future joint exercises across the Defense Department’s Joint Professional Military Education enterprise. America employed similar institutional dynamics to leave the Soviets behind in the Information Age, and this is how we do the same to China in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: moving the goal posts on command performance.
The Naval War College knows how to go big on wargaming, having done so in the past to global effect. It is time to do so again.
Yesterday, Tom Fisher (PAXsims and Imaginetics) and Matt Stevens (Lessons Learned Simulation and Training) spoke about their work on serious game for humanitarian training. If you missed it, the Georgetown University Wargaming Society has posted the video of the event to their YouTube channel.
CNA is committed to building and sustaining a diverse workforce and an inclusive environment. We believe that employees with differing frames of reference and ranges of life experiences bring an energy and unique advantage that is essential to delivering on our mission.
At CNA, we believe diversity reflects the world in which we live. Inclusivity creates a dynamic work environment that fosters trust, innovation, and excellence, while providing an atmosphere where every employee feels respected, motivated, and empowered to perform at peak level.
We recognize that wargames benefit from a diverse range of participants, designers, developers, and analysts. Since the best wargames reveal the unexpected, they are always enriched by a diversity of viewpoints.We pledge to carry these values forward in the wargames we execute, consistent with the Derby House Principles.
If your organization would like to be listed as a supporter of the Derby House Principles, email us.
Pete Pellegrino is a retired USN commander and former Naval Flight Officer, currently employed by Valiant Integrated Services supporting the US Naval War College’s War Gaming Department as lead for game design and adjudication and lecturing on game related topics for the department’s war gaming courses. In addition to his work at the college since 2004, Pete has also conducted business games for Fortune 500 companies and consulted for major toy and game companies.
Pete kindly provided PAXsims with permission to share this video. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.
If you are interested in a career in wargaming, this could be your chance. Moreover, we have been in a terrific dialogue with Slitherine regarding the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in wargaming, and they have made very clear their desire to see more hires from non-traditional and underrepresented groups.
Teachers and other mentors—please share this widely.
Neff, 29, who resigned Friday from his role at Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, was “immediately removed” from a list of experts helping to support war gaming exercises at the Marine Corps War College, an official told Task & Purpose on Thursday after being asked about Neff’s ties to the Marine Corps.
Neff had been a “wargaming subject matter expert” for the college since Oct. 2016, the official said, and had taken part in wargaming exercises with Marines more than a dozen times.
“We recently learned that a wargaming expert who had previously provided support to the Marine Corps War College was responsible for racist social media posts,” said Capt. Monica Witt, a Marine spokeswoman.
“We immediately removed Mr. Neff from the list of experts who support our educational wargaming program. Mr. Neff’s language and behavior do not represent Marine Corps University or the United States Marine Corps.”
The Marine Corps “does not tolerate racist, sexist, or homophobic behavior,” Witt said.
Global Affairs Canada, Defence Research and Development Canada, and Connections North held a webinar today, featuring yours truly presenting on the topic of “leveraging games for strategic insight.” Over forty people were in attendance. The session wasn’t recorded, but you’ll find my slides here (pdf):
The presentation was largely pitched at gaming policy challenges outside the national security sector (such as African Swine Fever), and for a Canadian audience (that is, reflecting a smaller serious games community).
The webinar discussion series focuses on the growing strategic, professional policy gaming community of practice in Canada. Through informal virtual discussion and presentations, we look forward to sharing lessons learned from gaming experiences, and discussing topics such as game types, game design, and how gaming can be used as a tool for generating insights and analysis in support of policy development. The forum will also provide the opportunity to build game ideas and identify opportunities to (beta)test new games.
Future events will be publicized here at PAXsims and on the Connections North email list. If you work in government in Canada, you may also want to contact Madeline Johnson (GAC) to be added to their internal list for future notifications.
Flatten Islandis a browser game in which a player tries to manage the COVID-19 pandemic by allocating scarce resources across several areas—infection control and social distancing, medical treatment, vaccine research, and public relations, while at all the time facing the constraints of financial resources and political capital.
The NGO Video Games Without Borders presents the video game Flatten Island, a not-for-profit development in collaboration with Margarito Estudio (artistic direction), Cicchi Consulting (technical management) and Asociación Oleaje (game design).
Flatten Island makes you the governor of a pandemic-stricken island. Experiment with managing a health emergency for fun and with a touch of humour. You’ll learn that no decisions come without consequences and that they aren’t always easy to make. What’s more, Flatten Island, which is already available for free on Android devices and on the web, makes it possible to financially support various initiatives of different natures that are fighting against the real-life pandemicthrough both research, health and care services.
Francesco Cavallari, founder of Video Games Without Borders, tells the story behind Flatten Island: “At the start of lockdown, we realized that we needed to do something, to do our bit in this exceptional situation. That’s how we had the idea to develop a game to help in the fight against COVID-19 and the direct and indirect consequences that it brings. No more than a few days into our venture, several people from our international community had already signed up to the project and we had a complete team to start work on the game. The entire development was undertaken on a voluntary basis, without investing a single penny, and was completed in just one month and a half. I think that’s a really great achievement and I want to congratulate the whole team for their altruism and professionality.
Since the beginning of lockdown, people have gone out onto balconies in several countries to applaud and support the key workers who are fighting hard to limit the consequences of the pandemic. This game is our special way to pay tribute to those people for their commitment and hard work, as well as to remember all those who passed away during the outbreak and especially to help the organisations that are still fighting to overcome the virus.”
Despite the cartoony visuals, the game is largely aimed at an older teen and adult audience.
PAXsims is pleased to provide some recent items on conflict simulation and serrious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers. Our thanks to Jeremy Sepinsky and Paul Kearney for suggesting material for this latest edition.
While hobby wargaming has a plethora of outlets during this global pandemic, the same cannot be said for professional wargaming.
The pandemic has completely disrupted professional wargaming, which is typically played en masse and in person. Hundreds of people tend to gather for the signature “Title 10” wargames of each service, such as the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warrior or the Navy’s Global wargames. These events bring together the artists, scientists, and practitioners of military disciplines to practice, explore, and critique the newest concepts the U.S. military will face or bring to bear. But in the last three months, all of CNA’s in-person wargames have been postponed or cancelled, and the larger military events have mostly been postponed, cancelled, or significantly scaled back.
In this time when virtual meetings are becoming the norm, it may seem obvious to simply start running these wargames online. But shifting entire wargames to virtual events can never fully replace in-person events. A successful wargame is inherently a many-to-many conversation, in which disparate participants from a broad range of organizations gather to share their unique perspectives. Virtual platforms are not yet able to duplicate the experience.
But wargames are simply too critical to the national planning processes and to developing senior leaders for us to simply throw up our hands and wait for a COVID-19 vaccine. We must learn to execute virtual wargames that yield at least some of the same impact and insight. And so we have to reckon with their many challenges.
The Military Operations Research Society has a series of wargaming courses coming up:
UPDATE: MORS has decided to make all of its events virtual for the duration of 2020.
On his present trajectory, President Trump is heading for a whopping defeat in November. The Economist says there’s nearly a 99 percent chance that Joe Biden will win more popular votes and around a 90 percent chance that he will win more electoral college votes. But what if Trump won’t concede defeat? That is a nightmare scenario for our democracy that could make the 2000 showdown over Florida’s hanging chads seem like a grade-school dispute by comparison…
The scenario we were given predicted a narrow Biden victory in the electoral college: 278 to 260. Various participants played the role of the Trump campaign, the Biden campaign, Republican and Democratic elected officials, the news media, and other key players to see what would happen next.
I was on Team Trump and, needless to say, we did not concede defeat. Instead, we went to work, ruthlessly and unscrupulously, utilizing every ounce of power at our disposal, to secure the 10 electoral college votes to swing the election. We focused our attention on three of the swing states that Biden won in our scenario — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — because, in all three, Republicans control both branches of the legislature. Normally, the governor certifies the election results, and in all three states the governor is a Democrat. But there is nothing to prevent the legislature from certifying a different election outcome.
The danger of an undemocratic outcome only grows in other scenarios that were “war gamed” by other participants. For instance, what if there is no clear-cut winner on election night, with Biden narrowly ahead in the electoral college but with Michigan, North Carolina and Florida still too close to call? The participants in that war game concluded the result would be “near civil war in the streets.” Far-fetched rumors are enough to bring out armed right-wing militias today; imagine how they would respond if they imagined that there was an actual plot afoot to steal the election from their hero.AD
It is impossible to write off such concerns as far-fetched given how many seemingly far-fetched things have already occurred in the past four years.Trump got himself impeached by trying to blackmail a foreign country into helping his reelection campaign. He will stop at nothing to avoid the stigma of being branded a “loser.” Unless Biden wins by an electoral college margin that no one can credibly dispute, our democracy may be imperiled as never before. We had better start thinking now about how we would handle such an electoral crisis.
The North American Simulation and Gaming Association is launching doversity scholarship, in connection with its annual conference:
At NASAGA, fairness and equity are key values. In our games, we recognize the importance of the system engine underlying the game environment. A character may have highly beneficial stats in certain attributes, but if the environment is set up against them to constantly sap their stamina based on a stat they’re not specced for, game play will be devastatingly unfair. We realize that our Black brothers and sisters are facing this very challenge every day through four centuries of systemic racial discrimination and oppression. We are uniting to focus our support on those who face the deepest hits to their stamina.
To put action to our words, we are instituting a scholarship specifically to support and encourage People of Color in our educational gaming world. Starting in the fall of 2020, this scholarship will be available to our Black and Brown community to break down gates in our corner of the gaming world. It will be awarded to support attendance at our conference each year.
In late 2017, Headquarters Forces Command hosted a Wargaming Conference with the aim of re-invigorating wargaming as a skill within the Australian Army. The need had been identified in the lessons learned from the HAMEL series over a number of years; the Australian Army was recognising that the wargaming skills of its officers and soldiers had languished in recent years. The Australian Army was not alone in this realisation, in 2014 the United States Department of Defense funded a program to revitalise analytical wargaming through the conduct of tabletop exercises, seminars, workshops and turn based wargames. Additionally, in 2017, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence released the Wargaming Handbook to ‘reinvigorate wargaming in defence’ and to ‘restore it as part of their DNA’.
First and foremost this article aims to stimulate discussion about wargaming, generate new ideas and approaches for wargaming Professional Military Education activities and generally contribute to the reinvigoration of wargaming within Army. More specifically this article will provide readily available and low cost solutions for leaders to incorporate into their unit’s Professional Military Education program. These options include participation in the Army Tactics Competition hosted by the Australian Defence Force Wargaming Association and the establishment of unit ‘Fight Clubs’ leveraging commercially available products (both board games and table top miniature-based wargame systems). While some might consider this a non-traditional approach, others may wonder why these events and clubs have not already been established in units and/or brigades. The implementation of these proposed solutions should be seen as a way of complementing the existing training continuum and a means to enhance Army’s tactical acumen. Additionally; it was to develop the critical thinking capacity of Army’s personnel and provide experiential learning regarding decision making in an adversarial environment.
For more information on the Australian Defence Force Wargaming Association, see their website.
The Royal Navy ship RFA Argus is currently in the Caribbean on hurricane watch. Before deployment, the ship readied for potential humanitarian assistance and disaster response by playing AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game.
This past term I taught foreign policy for the first time and used Model Diplomacy by the Council of Foreign Relations.
Model Diplomacy is a fantastic resource for teachers and it is completely free. It has an impressive variety of cases and adapting a simulation to one’s particular needs requires only a few clicks. Thanks to the wide range of background material recommended to the students, the instructor can be confident that they will use relevant documents to prepare for the simulation, which is a great advantage of Model Diplomacy for both students and instructors. My students enjoyed working with videos, official documents, and different reports—instead of academic articles—to write their position memos. Model Diplomacy thus increases students interest and is also a good opportunity for them to familiarise themselves with a range of policy documents.
There are two questions that keep security personnel up at night: How will the next attacker breach our organization? And how well will we perform when it happens?
Usually, you find out the answers only after an incident happens. So how do you answer these questions before any damage is done, and how do you ensure that your incident response team can provide their best possible answer when called upon?
The answer is to gain what Matthew B. Caffrey, coordinator of wargaming at the Air Force Material Command, calls “synthetic experience.” By this he means simulating attacks within the context of a wargame. Running through scenarios that are expected to occur in the future and then going through the processes and practices to deal with them allows you and your staff to gain experience in how to respond to a crisis. When a real incident happens, they’ve already been through it many times before.
The following was written for PAXsims by Dr. James Sterrett, Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE), U. S. Army University.
The Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE) at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), U.S. Army University spent mid-March through early June 2020 to prepare for, and then to conduct or support, three elective courses online using commercial wargames. This article outlines our key lessons learned, and then discusses some details of what we did.
In total, the class events we ran totaled 10 different games, each running from 2.5 to 8 hours, each preceded by at least one 3 hour preparation session. In addition, many of these involved numerous internal trainup sessions with each game, plus many trial runs of many games to assess their suitability for use, or in testing VASSAL modules we built for some of these games. For around 9 weeks, from 30 March through 2 June, we averaged one 3-hour online wargame session a day, for testing, preparation, or classes.
We ran wargames for 3 different courses:
Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program (2x 4 hour classes)
Aftershock for the Defense Support to Civil Authorities elective (1x 3 hour class)
Eight games for History in Action, which we teach in collaboration with the Department of Military History. (8x 3 hour classes)
Top lesson 1: Online wargaming works, but it’s harder than live. Compared to running wargames live, it requires more manpower, time, effort, and technology from both students and faculty.
Top lesson 2: Success requires scaffolding. Don’t assume students are ready with their technology or that they understand the online engine. Plan for on-call tech support during every class. Plan to explicitly teach both the online engine, and the game itself in that engine.
This is the most surprising outcome to us. Several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and were not very fond of it; we are now converts. VASSAL proved to be simple, reliable, effective, and made lower demands on computing horsepower and networks – and it is free. In addition, it was an easier and more powerful tool to make new game modules for.
(Read the detailed section for a more nuanced view of some of the other options.)
Test your tools in online classroom settings before committing to them.
Our initial impressions of tools were frequently overturned after gaining more extensive experience with them in testing.
Ease of use beats flashy presentation.
The more you can minimize the friction of using the online game tool, the more effort you can put elsewhere. This is why VASSAL became, unexpectedly, our favorite application.
Running a wargame online needs more manpower than running the same game live.
Running wargames live, a skilled facilitator can sometimes run 2 or 3 games. Online, you must have one facilitator per game. When teaching the game, you must have one person doing the instruction while another monitors a chat window for questions and puts them to the instructor at appropriate moments.
In addition, we found we needed to have a separate person as dedicated on-call tech support, every time. Although a few classes did not turn out to need tech support, most did, and dedicated tech support meant that the game facilitators could keep the games running while the students with tech problems got helped.
Running a wargame online requires a higher level of skill across the facilitators than running the same games live in one room.
Running wargames live in one room, one person can be the expert whom the others can rapidly turn to for help. Running online, everyone is necessarily in separate rooms, and even with side-channel communications, the question and answer interchange is much slower. Each facilitator needs to be an expert.
Keeping the game moving is harder online due to the limited communications.
Live, you can see what students are doing. You usually know who is thinking, who is confused and needs help, who is done making a move. Online, you usually have no idea. Is the student silent because they are thinking? Confused and lost? Conferring with their partner? Done but forgot to announce it? Done, and announced it, but failed to activate their microphone or had some technical issue? When do you break in to ask, possibly breaking their concentration and creating more friction?
Everything takes longer online.
Your game is hostage to hardware issues beyond your control.
A bad internet day makes for a bad class day. Students come with widely varying degrees of computer savvy. They also come with widely varying quality of equipment. We had one student whose computer was a low-powered laptop around a decade old, which created frequent technical issues. Another used a Surface tablet, which had no direct technical issues, but the small screen caused usability problems.
Ideally, each participant should have least 2 large monitors.
A reasonably modern computer, preferably with at least one large monitor, and, ideally, with two or more large monitors, definitely worked best. Multiple monitors enabled placing documentation and chat windows on one screen while placing the main game map on the other.
Those with only one monitor, especially if on a small screen, found themselves constantly paging between windows and struggling to manage limited screen space.
Some students and faculty took to using a high definition TV as a second monitor, which worked well.
Technology in More Detail
Ideally, we would have done extensive R&D into both a wargame engine and into a communications solution. However, we rapidly determined that Blackboard, which the Army already had on contract, provided a communications system that was both sufficient for our purposes and that students already knew how to use. While not perfect (the interface for splitting students into small groups can be a pain to use), Blackboard worked well for us. Specific features we came to rely on:
The ability to break students into breakout groups, and to have instructors move easily between breakout groups. Each breakout group was one game. Also, we could easily recall all the breakout groups into one room when it came time to return to group discussion.
Screen sharing to assist in teaching the games. While the shared screens were sometimes very fuzzy (which we worked around by zooming in when details were important), the shared screen allowed us to direct people’s attention to the item currently under discussion. In a perfect world, the game engine itself would provide a means of directing attention.
Multiple chat lines: Direct 1 to 1 chat, alongside breakout room chat, alongside group discussion chat, all at the same time. The major feature we wanted, and did not have, was a direct chat line between any subset of people without creating a new breakout room – so that 3 or 4 people on the same side could coordinate their strategy and tactics, for example. We worked around this by having students use their cell phones.
We spent several weeks testing online game engines, both for running games and our ability to modify or create new games.
As noted above, several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and did not have a high opinion of it. However, those opinions were based on the state of VASSAL in the later 1990s, when it was relatively new. VASSAL has improved a lot in the last 20 years, and those improvements are a great credit to its volunteer coding team.
VASSAL is not the prettiest or slickest engine out there. However, it had several decisive advantages:
Highly reliable, it worked on all the equipment students brought into the classes.
Free, while every other solution required either the instructors, or everyone, to buy software.
Easier for students to learn than other systems.
It was significantly easier for our team to make new or modified modules in VASSAL than in other systems.
Presented the widest variety of ready-to-go games relevant to our courses.
Because it is built from the ground up to support wargames, VASSAL’s standard interaction set is tailored to supporting wargames. The other engines seemed, to us, to have standard interactions best suited to running Euro games or role-playing games (which those other engines chase because those are much larger markets!)
VASSAL doesn’t enforce the rules. We thought this would be a weakness, but when the computer enforces the rules, it prevents the facilitator from fixing mistakes – and with first-time players, it’s very handy to let the facilitator see and do anything they want.
Two key workarounds we used with VASSAL:
Normally only one player can join a specific role. However, if everyone who is going to join that role does so simultaneously, you can pack many players into one role, permitting a small team of students to play the same side while maintaining fog of war. Note that this feature is not officially supported.
Most modules that had fog of war also included a “Solo” player who could see everything, so we used this as a facilitator role. We modified the Triumph & Tragedy module to include this as well. Without the ability to see through the fog of war, the facilitator cannot effectively answer questions and solve problems.
Tabletopia was our initial favorite, with a slick interface and great presentation. Our favorite feature is the ability to see the “hands” of the other players, which makes it really easy to direct attention – “Look at the Blue Hand”. Tabletopia is browser-driven and thus is platform independent, which is a great plus. It is also the only way to play 1944: Race to the Rhine online, which we very much wanted to include in our history course.
However, Tabletopia also had some problems. Running a multiplayer game requires that at least one player has a paid account ($9.99/month), and the Terms of Service for game creation included language that we were wary of. In testing, it was much more difficult to make a new game in Tabletopia than in VASSAL, and essentially impossible to modify an existing game we had not made. We could not figure out how to enforce fog of war in a blocks game in Tabletopia.
The great surprise came when we used it in class. We expected students would find the interface simple. However, students found Tabletopia confusing to use and said they preferred VASSAL. Students with weaker computer hardware or slower internet connections found Tabletopia crashed or refused to start.
While we may use Tabletopia again in order to use the excellent Race to the Rhine, we also know we need to figure out how to work through its issues first.
Tabletop Simulator (TTS) has a very large following, but we wound up bouncing off it. The large number of possible interactions means it also has a large number of controls and possible customizations. We found it confusing, and the physics model got in the way of ease of use as pieces bumped into each other. A friend who likes it admitted it takes at least 10 hours to get comfortable with TTS, which is longer than we can afford to spend for classes. In addition to these issues, TTS is a $20 purchase.
Roll20 is built to support role-playing games. Unlike the other options mentioned here, Roll20 includes fairly robust voice and chat communications. It’s reasonably simple to set up a new game in Roll20 as well.
Roll20 fared well in initial testing, and thus became a strong candidate for running Matrix games. However, in full testing, its communications fell apart under the load of around a dozen people. In addition, we ran into significant issues with allocating permissions to move pieces; as far as we could tell, players needed to join so they were known to the game room, then leave, so the GM could make permissions changes, then rejoin, which seemed like an overly complex dance to go through under time pressure in a class with students.
We suspect that our inexperience with the tool is key in some of these problems and intend to retest Roll20 in the summer. In addition, we know of others who have used Microsoft Teams and Google Sheets to run Matrix games.
No Computer Games – Why?
We avoided computer games for several reasons:
Students would need to buy them, and potentially need to buy many games for one class.
Many games of interest run on only a subset of student computers (only Windows, or only high-end Windows computers, for example).
Each computer game has its own interface to learn, on top of learning the game system, increasing the training overhead needed to get to the learning for the class; this is particularly an issue for our history class.
In many cases, understanding the games’ models is an essential component to learning the wider lessons of the class. In our experience, this is harder to do with computer games, whose models are obscured in comparison to manual games. (This is the price paid for the computer doing the heavy lifting of the model; the payoff of the computer is that it does that work.)
We are not adamantly opposed to computer wargames; we use them in our Simulations Lab during live instruction, and are investigating using them in some courses this fall in DL. However, in the short timeframe we had, the above complications were sufficient to rule them out.
Teaching the Games
In all cases, we learned that it works best to:
Provide a 15 minute introduction to the game at the end of the prior class. Students won’t learn the game from this but the overview helps them learn better from the rules and videos in step 2.
Provide the rules and tutorials as homework. YouTube tutorials were very popular with students, when they existed. Students will not learn the game from these but they will come armed to steps 3 and 4 with a better framework.
Provide a practice session. We routinely ran a practice session the afternoon before class. These lasted 3 hours (the same duration as the class) and included the full teaching script plus playing the game. We warned students that this was partly internal trainup, so they knew to be patient with periodic digressions as we worked out unexpected wrinkles. Because they actually play the game, students learn the game in these. If you control the groups, distribute the students who came to the Practice session across the class day student groups. As time went on, we learned to have internal trainup sessions before the official Practice session, so that our people were ready to run a game on their own in the Practice session.
Teach the game at the beginning of class. We find it always helps to begin by identifying the sides and their victory conditions, because you can tie all the game mechanics in the game back to them.
We establish up front that we will not teach all the details of the game, and thus many of these will pop up as they become relevant. We try to warn people if they are going to hit a special case, and if somebody winds up in a bad position because of a rule not previously explained, we will try to come to a reasonably fair adjustment so they are not unfairly punished by an unknown rule.
Doing all this requires facilitators who are experts on the game, as noted earlier.
We find that putting students into pairs on a given side works well in most cases. Two will tend to plan together, each can compensate for the places where the other finds things confusing, and provide moral support where one sometimes feels confused and alone. Three on a team, however, sometimes means one gets left out.
Teaching the Courses
Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program
The Art of War Scholars Program is a highly select group of CGSC students who engage in a wider-ranging and academically more rigorous course of study, focused on studying the art of warfighting through a combination of seminars and research focused on the operational and strategic military history of the past century. Each student must write a thesis in the CGSC Master’s of Military Art and Science program.
Dr. Dean A. Nowowiejski, the instructor for the Art of War Scholars Program, wanted the wargame to do three things: introduce the students to wargaming, introduce the terrain of the Battle of the Bulge to students for a follow-on virtual staff ride, and to examine the dilemmas facing the Allied forces in reducing the Bulge.
To support this, we need a game simple enough for new wargamers to play effectively, that covered the Bulge in enough detail to gain an appreciation for the terrain and forces involved, and that could be made to start later in the battle in order to cover the reduction of the Bulge.
We selected Bitter Woods for having the best balance of both a simple system (using only the basic rules) and the ability to run the Battle of the Bulge into January 1945. The runners-up were GMT’s Ardennes ‘44 and MMP’s Ardennes. Ardennes ’44 is more complex and Ardennes is out of print, the latter being a key criterion when we made the selection in January 2020 and expected to run the event live.
In order to highlight the dilemmas in reducing the Bulge, we created a scenario that began on 27 December 1944, and also modified the existing Bitter Woods 22 December ’44 start point to cover the entire map, both accomplished with assistance from LTC William Nance, PhD, of the CGSC Department of Military History. After testing both of these, we concluded that the dilemmas showed up best on 22 December, as Patton’s forces begin to arrive. This start point also made a better set of dilemmas for the Germans, as their offensive is not out of steam on 22 December, leaving them with difficult choices about how to protect their flanks while aiming for victory. We divided the twelve students into three separate game groups that executed simultaneously. We had teams of 2 on each side in each game, and each team was split between a northern and a southern command.
Dr. Nowowiejski told us that the Art of War Scholars students would be prepared, and he proved correct. This group of top-flight students, all very comfortable with technology, had no technical issues. In addition, while we ran the game, LTC William Nance moved through the 3 game rooms, offering both historical commentary and acting as the high command for both sides to ping students with questions about their plans in order to ground those in the wider concerns of their historical counterparts. This left Dr. Nowowiejski free to circulate through the groups, observe the students, and discuss wider points with them.
Dr. Nowowiejski had students discuss their plans and operational assessments with the entire class at the end of each of the two 4 hour classes, for a mid-point and final AAR. As the students in the various Allied and German teams uncorked radically different plans, this provided a chance to compare possible courses of action and outcomes for both sides. Students did find they had more units than they could easily control, but this produced useful discussions on the difficulty of integrating tactics into operations. Overall, Dr. Nowowiejski judged the event “very successful” and hopes to have us run it, live or on VASSAL, next year.
Aftershock for the Homeland Security Planner’s Elective
We have run Aftershock in person several times in the past for Clay Easterling and Joseph Krebs’ Department of Joint & Multinational Operations Homeland Security Planner elective course. Much of the course examines higher level legal and policy issues. Playing Aftershock in the middle breaks this up, and also serves as a reminder of the practical impact of the plans and policies they are discussing. Students regularly name it their favorite part of the course. Now we needed to run it electronically…!
No computer version of Aftershock existed. The designers, Dr. Rex Brynen and Thomas Fisher, readily granted us permission to create a version in VASSAL, and Curt Pangracs of DSE spent around two weeks creating and testing the module in time for the course.
There were 33 students in this elective, divided into pairs for each of the 4 teams in the game, making a total of 4 games run in parallel. Four of us from DSE ran the games, while a fifth stood by for technical support, ensuring the two instructors could circulate between the three sessions to observe and discuss.
We knew that this course tended to have a solid proportion of officers with low levels of experience with computers. Because of this, we set the Aftershock module up with two participant roles: the Facilitator, who controlled everything on the board; and the Observers, who could not change anything, but could see everything and call up the supporting documentation. This matched the way we often run the game in person, where the facilitator can keep the game moving by running the board and presenting the players with the next decision. We figured that with some of the students being less technical, making the students Observers would allow them to concentrate on making decisions instead of trying to puzzle out how to make the game execute their intended course of action.
We had far more technical issues than we expected, possibly because the larger number of students – nearly three times the number in any of our other groups – meant there were more opportunities for problems. As a result, in each of the four games, the facilitators wound up using the backup plan of streaming their VASSAL screen of Aftershock out to some of the students who could not otherwise see the VASSAL screen. This is far from ideal, as those students reliant on the stream could not control the view, and the Blackboard shared screen is often fuzzy, but it was better than not seeing the screen at all.
Despite the technical issues, students found the exercise very useful, and the instructors named it “a highlight of the course”. As one student wrote in their AAR, “Finally a time at CGSC where we are truly talking with one another to get something done and seeing the results of our decision”.
However, a key lesson here is that the event would have gone a lot more smoothly if we had conducted a readiness check at the end of the prior class session, just to make sure that everybody had VASSAL installed, could load the Aftershock module, and could join the online session – and then to help those who could not, so their troubles were fixed before the main event.
History in Action is a joint elective taught by DSE and the Department of Military History, run with the aim of teaching military history through wargaming, and also teaching a better understanding of wargaming through learning the history. Knowledge of history should inform both playing and assessing the game. Equally, playing the game should help better understand the history; while wargaming can’t let you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, it can let you walk ten feet in their socks. In prior years, DSE’s partner in this class was Dr. Greg Hospodor, but he moved away and we now partner with Dr. Jonathan Abel, and were also assisted by LTC William Nance, PhD, when he was available.
To be selected for this course, a game has to pass all of these tests:
It has to be a good game – fun is the hook, though it isn’t the point.
It has to be available for our use (some that pass the other criteria are out of print, or, for online, have no online implementation).
We have to be able to teach and run it within the 3 hour class time while leaving time for discussion.
It must be dripping with history. It has to highlight unique aspects of the historical event it covers, so it both helps teach that history directly, and further helps teach when compared to the other games in the course. This tends to rule out many less complex games because they wind up being functionally generic. For example, if the game system doesn’t help drive home the difference between commanding World War 2 armor divisions and Napoleonic cavalry divisions, or treats the employment of the Roman manipular legion as little different from that of the Macedonian phalanx, then it doesn’t drive the learning we are looking for.
While in past years we tried to sequence the games according to a theme or timeline or the scale of the actions, our test sessions in early April convinced us that we should sequence the games in order of probable complexity to students. While we began with the list of games we use when teaching the course live, but some of them were not available online, while others we would like to use were. We used, in order:
Battle for Moscow (The 1941 drive on Moscow)
Napoleon 1806 (The Jena/Auerstadt campaign)
1944: Race to the Rhine (The Allied drive across France, with a logistics focus)
Drive on Paris (Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII in 1914)
Strike of the Eagle (1920 Soviet-Polish War)
Triumph & Tragedy (The struggle for Europe, 1936-1945)
Fire in the Lake (Vietnam War)
Nevsky (Teutonic Knights vs Novogord Rus in 1240-1242)
In each 3 hour class, we began by teaching the game, then we ran it in parallel student groups until there were 45 minutes remaining. The next 30 minutes or so were spent in discussions, and the final 15 minutes or so were spent introducing the next game in the class. Between classes, students were assigned material on the history behind the next game, rulebooks and tutorials to learn the next game, and a graded AAR sheet to fill out on the game just played. The AAR sheet asks for paragraph-length answers to these questions:
What was your plan/COA going into the game?
How did your plan/COA work?
How did the game illustrate the specific contextual elements of the period?
Was the game effective in conveying these contextual elements? How or how not?
What did you learn about warfare in the game’s time period? What surprised you?
What specific lessons can you draw from this game to apply to the future?
We were very pleased with student learning in the class. Student AAR papers were full of observations on things they had learned about history, about wargaming, and that they could carry forward to future assignments. As one student wrote in their end-of-course feedback, “more than anything the course provided context and examples that I can use in the future when explaining the challenges at the operational level of warfare”. Success! However, we did have to overcome various issues along the way.
We intentionally began with Battle for Moscow, the simplest game, to ensure we could also teach VASSAL in the same class. This generally paid off, as subsequent games utilized, at most, a few more features of VASSAL each time, and thus the learning curve was well controlled and students seemed comfortable with VASSAL most of the time. This process worked poorly when we jumped to Tabletopia for Race to the Rhine in class session 3, and then back to VASSAL for session 4 and beyond. Some of our issues with Tabletopia likely stem from our assumption that its interface was easy enough to need little direct training, and to the ways in which it is different from VASSAL. Equally, we had a slight uptick in trouble with the VASSAL interface in class session 4, perhaps because the students had been out of touch with it for a time.
We began inviting students to our internal prep sessions once we realized they might be able to attend. Students who had the time to attend these were normally much better versed in the game than their peers. We, in turn, had to recall that those unable to attend the optional prep session should be assumed to have a good reason! We also learned to spread the students who attended the prep sessions across the student groups. Arranging the student teams ahead of time, and publishing them for students, also helped, as some student teams would strategize ahead of the class.
This course charted the middle ground in the level of technical issues. All the students were comfortable with technology, but some had poor internet connections or weak computers, including the roughly ten year old laptop mentioned earlier. This led to those students losing connection to VASSAL or Blackboard. When using Tabletopia, weaker internet connections and weaker computers completely failed. Just as we all have learned that internet meetings go better when everybody turns off their video feed, opting for systems, such as VASSAL, that made less intensive use of network and computing power proved better in practice.
Online wargaming works, but it is more effort than live, because:
Test your technology thoroughly and ensure you have support on hand to run it.
Running wargames online will require a higher level of expertise from all of your facilitators, of technology and the games.
Running wargames online will require more preparation from students, both in learning the game and ensuring their technology is ready.
BoardGameGeek (description) and VASSAL (module) links for all the games mentioned: