mcwl logo

Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory

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



Methods for Developing Scenarios

Civilian realm

Royal Dutch/Shell has been using scenario-based strategy development for decades. Because of Shell's success, other commercial organizations have followed its lead. See Shell's Explorer's Guide that provides advice on developing your own scenarios.

Global Business Network (GBN) used to provide an aide memoire on scenario planning based largely on the company's experience in the business world. The company has past links to Royal Dutch/Shell and its use of scenario-based thinking in the 1970s. Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chairman of GBN, wrote a very popular book on how he used scenarios at Royal Dutch/Shell and subsequently.

The Fred Friendly series of hypotheticals broadcast by PBS are counterparts to what the military would call seminar war games. Preparation for each one starts with research on an issue and the development of a scenario. While the purpose of these seminars is largely educational, a similar path is followed for developing hypothetical situations for seminar war games.

Military realm

There are times when simply deliberating over a scenario may be sufficient to explore the more challenging aspects of decisions about the future. If the decisions are substantially clarified by this, the search for understanding may stop there. But decisions and problems that are more than trivial may demand more effort. A subsequent stage, particularly for military decisions, is war gaming.

The Wikipedia entry on scenario planning provides useful checklists on the process. There is also a recipe of 18 steps provided by Ralston and Wilson. These are oriented towards the use of scenario-based thinking in developing business strategies. When appropriate military counterparts can be found, the recipes are just as valuable in the military realm.

The ABCA Armies' Program has an Analysis Handbook (ABCA Pub 354) that describes the scenario development process for multinational land operations (see diagram on "Scenario Development Process"). The scenario at the tactical level (ABCA's dominant interest) is developed to be consistent within the context of the strategic and operational levels. The supported organization (in this example, the ABCA Executive Council) provides the study issues, from which are derived Focus Areas which can be deconstructed in a Data Collection and Analysis Plans (DCMP). The larger context (the operational level OpPlan), the focus areas and study issues, and the DMCPs provide the material from which to develop a Master Scenario Events List (MSEL).

A Data Collection and Management Plan (DCMP) is developed in a spreadsheet format with issues decomposed into sub-issues, and further into questions. The decomposition may continue through essential elements of analysis (EEA) and the measures of merit (MOM) that might be used to assess them.

For seminar war games, where data collection may be largely a record of the discourse, the MOMs would not likely be quantitative measures, more an assessment of qualitative views or of military judgement. The "Location" and "Time" indicators in the right hand columns are to indicate where, during a scenario or in a MSEL, an opportunity would arise to observe the issue in question. If the issue were important and there had been no opportunity to collection reactions to it, then the MSEL would have to be adjusted accordingly. Hence, the scenario design must accommodate the analysis plan.

The Analysis Handbook also provides a mechanism to crosswalk from the issues that are the focus of a war game to scenario design -- from the Essential Areas of Analysis within the Data Collection and Management Plan (DCMP) to the Master Scenario Events List (MSEL). This is the means to do a double check that important issues for data collection will be afforded opportunities within the scenario to see how participants deal with them. Note that it is probably risky to have an important issue without some corresponding activity in the MSEL, although it could come up merely by chance. However there may be entries in the MSEL that have no corresponding issues from the DCMP; specifically, there may be items in the MSEL that provide some extra realism for the players, or that can provide some other secondary function, e.g., events to develop team cohesion or to practice a routine that may be necessary later in the scenario.

Player Material in Advance

For anything above the most trivial seminar war games, participants should be provided with a compilation of background material so they can prepare accordingly. The scenario or scenarios will be a critical part of this, so the players in particular will be familiar with the situation before they have to confront the issues within the war game. For games with strong military aspects, scenario material is usually augmented with several supporting elements, e.g., orders from higher command, maps or charts of the geographic area, orders of battle for the player's own forces, and perhaps of the opposition and coalition forces as well.

The Canadian Handbook provides an example template for a handbook. The contents of this handbook include practical material on running the game, like the 'real world' daily schedule for the gaming activity and a list of participants. For game context there is the scenario, including a map, an OpOrder, orders of battle, and background information on the nations involved and their constituent organizations.

Some of the preparation material that should be given in advance to the participants includes:

• Player Handbook: Players should be provided with something like the Canadian handbook already mentioned.

• Background Reading: Various documents ranging from historical events that may be relevant, to concept descriptions, to capstone documents that outline a candidate future strategy. This is optional if players arrive familiar with the material that will be covered during the game and may be issued separately from the Player Handbook.

• OpOrder: The Operations Order from some higher echelon will provide a context within which the game will be conducted. It can be included in the Player Handbook or issued separately.

• Maps and ORBATs. These provide the geographic and organizational context for the game. If manoeuvre will be a critical part of the game, maps in some detail may be required. If the game is more about issues that have limited geographic context, very simple maps may suffice. Orders of battle (ORBATs) will be particularly relevant if force structure issues will be covered during the game; if a single force structure will be used throughout (and is not really an issue for the players to test) a relatively simple ORBAT may be all that is required. Maps and ORBATs can be included in the Player Handbook, or issued separately.

• Biographies and Backgrounders. There is typically considerable role playing in seminar war games. Fictional biographies for the more prominent roles and backgrounders on organizations and issues can be of considerable value in setting the scene for the participants.

• "And Now the News from Our Alternate Reality": For its training exercises, National Defense University has audi-visual support for its own news team to insert scenario-based news reports. Similar approaches can be adapted to seminar war games to add some additional realism.

Sample Material from the Services


US Naval War College used a colourful war gaming spectrum before the Second World War: Red, Crimson, Black, Purple, and Orange. NWC games were often based on who would be the USN's likely opponent: Red = Britain, Orange = Japan, Purple = Soviet Union. The NWC scenarios of the 1920s and 1930s saw the Japanese Empire as the most likely opponent and the scenarios dealt with naval conflict in the Western Pacific. As it turned out, the most useful of these game results became War Plan Orange -- the Orange wargames predicted everything about the Second World War in the Pacific except the kamikaze tactics (according to Admiral Nimitz).

But the myth that the gamers immediately got it right is busted by Michael Vlahos. Early games were filled with hubris that the Japanese would await the US fleet as it assembled and crossed the Pacific to meet them, and that the US fleet would emerge from a Mahanian battle as the overwhelming victor -- it would be over in a matter of weeks. By the late 1930s, the war gamers eventually converged on War Plan Orange, a deliberate, joint, and multi-year campaign with many amphibious operations.

The games at Newport eventually became the Global War Game in the 1990s. Recently the advice from the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) to NWC on the future of the Global War Game is also valuable for how US Navy war games may be conducted in the future.

CNA also conducted a review of past Navy concept development, including scenarios, with a view to providing best practices for the Navy's next "capstone document". Their recommendations on how to write the next such document begins on page 788 (this may be the biggest PowerPoint slide deck ever seen!). While most of the recommendations are directed towards producing a compelling document for the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations' Guidance for 2011 (as in the CNA presentation) sees a role for seminar war games and much of the CNA advice applies to how seminar war games can support the preparation of a successful capstone document.

CNA provides a recent study of the US Navy's future, and there has been follow-up in Proceedings.

Air Force:

US Air Force and Herman Kahn: Kahn's " On Thermonuclear War" and "Thinking About the Unthinkable" in many respects started the post-war use of scenario-based thinking within the Department of Defense.

Herman Kahn developed much of his public persona from his scenarios about the results of nuclear conflict that could break out during the Cold War. Stanley Kubrick based the lead character in Dr Strangelove in part on Herman Kahn.

RAND Corporation

RAND has developed guidance on the regional issues that would impact upon future force structures of the US Air Force with an associated summary briefing. RAND also used seminar gaming and scenario analysis to provide some guidance on shaping the future Air Force.

Future Land Operations at the Tactical Level

For a case study on seminar war games for future concepts at the tactical level, see the Canadian Army of Tomorrow trilogy. Read together, this trilogy provides a paradigm for planning, executing, and reporting on seminar war games. The material shows how panels can be established to make assessments on topics like the reactions of local populations, relationships with other government departments and non-governmental organizations. Assessments that are based on laws of physics (e.g., use of hit and kill probabilities for combat results) can still be done with combat simulations.

US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)

Guidance is available for developing scenarios for combat development within the US Army. For those developing land-operations scenarios for futures thinking, there is also TRADOC guidance concept development.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) and Desert Crossing

From the declassified material on Desert Crossing, developers of seminar war games will find it especially instructive to read the e-mails between the CENTCOM staff as scenarios were developed and participants were chosen for various roles.

US Joint Forces Command (JFCOM)

The Joint Operating Environment (JOE), a periodically revised document from JFCOM, provides scenario material at the national strategic level for the next twenty-five years. If you want more JOE, see 2007 and 2008 editions.

Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Chairman has provided guidance on capstone concepts that provides general guidance on scenarios will be are consistent with the current views of national strategy.

References on scenario design:

Wikipedia on "scenario planning"

Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener (1967). The Use of Scenarios, The Hudson Institute

Peter deLeon (June 1973). Scenario Designs: An Overview. RAND, Santa Monica, CA

Peter Schwartz (1995). The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future

Kees van der Heijden (2005). Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation, 2nd ed., Wiley

Bill Ralston and Ian Wilson (2006). The Scenario Planning Handbook: Developing Strategies in Uncertain Times. Thomson

Andrew Krepinevich (2009). 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century. Bantam