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Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory

Background for the Basic Analytic Wargaming Course from the Naval Postgraduate School at MCB Quantico, 8 to 12 January 2018


The diagram shows an ideal war game project in terms of five phases. These are divided further into 15 steps. More detail of the phases and steps can be found by following the links in the sidebar for the phases.

This diagram represents the process in the ideal. In reality there may be more overlap of the steps than is suggested in the diagram. Also, during some steps it may become apparent that earlier steps have to be revisited. For example, new information may indicate a need to revise something from an earlier step and then proceed through the subsequent steps again.

This is particularly relevant during the design and develop phases. In many cases, some design aspects will be settled, and some limited development will then start. Then it may be necessary to return to design to address new elements, or if development activity has indicated that a design choice must be revisited because development of it is infeasible or too expensive.

For simplicity, the "return loops" are not shown, but the potential need to return to an earlier step should always be kept in mind. In extreme cases the "return loop" may represent a considerable change in direction of the study, and a significant impact on project management for the budget and the delivery schedule.

The 15 steps shown in the diagram and described below are for a "medium-scale seminar war game". They are presented under the assumption that the organization conducting the study has little prior history of using such methods. However, most military organizations will have some history of war gaming. With that already within the culture, many steps may be quickly addressed as they will be familiar to all concerned.

At the bottom of the diagram the time scale shows scheduling of workshops. The playing of the game is also shown as a workshop in its own right. The internal procedures of a given organization may use other terms for these events; for example, some workshops might be termed "planning conferences". Large projects may require more preparation workshops than shown here.

A 'medium-scale game' would be one that would take a few days to conduct and a month or so to prepare, and the main participants would number a dozen or so. If the scale were significantly larger, there may be a requirement for more workshops -- these are generally to coordinate various aspects of game development, so a more complex game would probably require more than the two planning workshops shown above to keep it on track. If the scale were smaller, some workshops might be dispensed with, or at least replaced by small and short coordination meetings of a few critical staff.

If the organization (Executive Team and Study Team) already has a good relationship and a history of successful games, many steps could be eliminated or completed with little effort and attention. For example, if a Study Team is a permanent fixture within the organization, the task of forming a study team in Step 3 needs hardly to be addressed (although some change in personnel might be appropriate from time to time). Similarly, for gaming that is a continuation of some previous effort, steps 4 through 9 might all be truncated if the factors, background information, and scenarios are readily available from a library or archive, or can be reused from one war game to another.

The Ralson and Wilson 18-step process for scenario-based strategy development was the inspiration for the format used here. Their book should be consulted for more detail on scenario building, although some interpretation may be required to move the context from the business world to the military world. Also note that their approach is more about developing scenarios and having others contemplate the ramifications. Seminar war gaming has a much larger component of playing out the scenarios.

When seminar war gaming is used for course of action analysis or for evaluation concepts or technologies, there should be a larger component of data collection and analysis -- a contribution for which operations research analysts are particularly well suited. When seminar war gaming is used for training, education, or historical reassessment, military methods of after-action reviews and a lessons-learned process should be incorporated.

The Spectrum of Professional Games

War games originated within the military community over two centuries ago. The techniques have since been adapted to a wide range of endeavors.

War Games for the Military

For over a century the military services of the United States have used war games for professional development. The Naval War College has a legacy dating to the late 19th century of professional gaming. In 1912 Captain McCarty Little provided a summary of how the Strategic Naval War Game was incorporated into the College's and the Navy's training and analytical program.

Current practice in military wargaming is captured in three handbooks from diverse sources:

These handbooks are excellent resources for military applications of wargaming. The war colleges' handbooks tend to give procedures that are specifically for their organizations; but these procedures can be adapted to other organization structures with a bit of imagination. The British handbook is less specific to a particular organization and offers guidance that can more readily implemented in a different organization.

Educational Material for Understanding Critical Aspects of American Culture

What Is a Fred Friendly Seminar

PBS in conjunction with Fred Friendly Seminars provides many examples of using a seminar within a role-playing game structure to provide compelling cases for critical aspects of American life. While lacking some elements of a traditional war game, e.g., an aggressive adversary, this series provides excellent examples of facilitation, of a well-crafted scenario, of opportunities for participants to affect the outcome of the game.

Role-playing Games within Exercises for Emergency Management

FEMA Cover for Course on Exercise Design

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides training on exercises to test and to develop good management plans. FEMA provides exercise planning advice in several areas. In many respects the manuals are derived from experience in the military services with war gaming although this has been "translated" to be relevant for domestic security.

Games As Part of Contingency Planning

NIST Guide to Test, Training, and Exercises

The National Institute of Standards and Technology provides a handbook that covers the use of games for exercising plans for specific contingencies. This manual addresses planning to maintain an information-technology infrastructure when faced with man-made and natural catastrophes.