Robert C. Engen and LtCol Scott Jenkinson

By Robert C. Engen and LtCol Scott Jenkinson

The 2019-20 Academic Year (AY19-20) in Canada was interrupted by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The academic year was about two-thirds finished when the faculty, staff, and students at the Canadian Forces College (CFC), Canada’s joint service staff college, were forced to disperse because of the pandemic. The final one-third of the AY19-20 program was transited online in what we called Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), distinct from traditional distance learning in part because of the crash efforts to redevelop face-to-face courses for virtual delivery on very little notice.

Much of the richness of face-to-face professional military education (PME) would potentially be lost to the crisis, as many seminars and activities had to be replaced by online threaded discussions. The authors, in their academic and directing staff capacities at CFC, sought to use their experience with wargaming to create a virtually-delivered, team-based wargame that could substitute and supplement discussions of planned subject matter through threaded discussions. The result was the development of Exercises GOSSAMER and RUNTIME in April 2020 as part of the joint warfighting stream in CFC’s Joint Command and Staff Program (JCSP), for delivery and execution in May of 2020. GOSSAMER and RUNTIME were custom-built wargames designed to simultaneously engage all 48 stream participants. It was executed in its entirety using only Zoom, Moodle, PowerPoint, and, to a lesser degree, Slack and WhatsApp. This article is an overview of how GOSSAMER and RUNTIME were put together and run under pandemic circumstances.


Exercise GOSSAMER was held virtually at Canadian Forces College on 8-15 May 2020 and was the delivery mechanism for the Targeting and Campaign Assessment modules in JCSP’s Advanced Topics in Campaign Design class. The aim of these modules was: “To introduce key concepts and theory relevant to targeting, and to examine restraints on targeting, targeting in irregular warfare, and targeting in coalitions,” through the execution of a role-based wargame. The game mechanics were custom built for Ex GOSSAMER by the authors, but were inspired by elements and mechanics of tabletop and matrix wargames such as Bitter Victory, They Shall Not Pass, Baltic Challenge, and a RAND report on “Gaming Grey Zone Tactics.” The intention was to create a game that represented and drew out the complexity and problems of modern targeting in an abstract, fast, playable way. It was not intended to be a re-creation of the targeting cycle, nor was it intended or sanctioned as a training instrument for the targeting process (this is not CFC’s remit). Rather, the intention was to spark thoughtful discussion and reflection about targeting among student participants, just as any seminar or threaded discussion on the topic would. The wargame was to be the vehicle for these discussions. The students were all majors or lieutenant commanders (OF-3).

The four JCSP stream syndicates were split into two, to create eight separate Teams, each of which would play in one big wargame supported by syndicate academics and directing staff, and overseen by a White Cell. The teams portrayed two sides of a conflict in the fictional NATO member state of “Baltika,” which faced growing unrest and an insurgency backed by a hostile neighbouring state, the Federation (by policy, Canada does not engage in strategic messaging by explicitly naming real-world adversarial entities in its exercises and wargames). Several cities within Baltika contained a majority of ethnically Federation citizens, and their alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Baltikan government was the catalyst for the scenario. Each of the eight Teams (of five or six students apiece) would role play either Field Forces (units on the map) or Command Teams representing high-level guidance and targeting policy. Teams represented Baltika and the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the country (collectively “Blue” Force), versus the Federation and the pro-Federation insurgents within Baltika (collectively “Red” Force). Canada, as the lead country and primary donor of troops to the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in Baltika, was specially represented.

Ex GOSSAMER Game State at Beginning of Game
Ex GOSSAMER Game State at Beginning of Game. Blue is NATO; purple is Baltika; Orange is Federation; Gray is Pro-Federation Dissidents.


Teams were expected to coordinate among themselves and used online platforms such as Zoom, Slack, and WhatsApp for communication. The game was conducted asynchronously over the space of one week, with a fixed turn order (of the UGOIGO type), and the teams free to meet synchronously among themselves typically once or twice per 24 hour period (sometimes much more). Teams had to submit orders for their units once per day, at a designated time (noon for Federation forces, 20:00 for NATO forces). The game was conducted double-blind in the manner of a classic Kriegsspiel; forces that were attempting to conceal their presence would not be revealed on an enemy’s map unless detected, making proper intelligence gathering a vital part of the game, especially for the NATO side. White Cell would process and post the results of that turn’s action. This placed many demands on White Cell. Red and Blue could not communicate with “enemy” teams.

The intention behind Ex GOSSAMER was to combine a structured wargame ruleset with a free-play approach and a codified system for orders submission that built student reflection into the process of constructing orders. The game allowed entirely non-kinetic information operations, gray zone “hybrid” warfare tactics, full-on conventional warfighting, and any combination thereof. Nuclear weapons were also on the map as a consideration, though their use would have ended gameplay immediately (the players were not made aware of this). The way to “win” the game, however, was primarily non-kinetic. Each Command Team possessed a Condition Track representing public opinion. Non-kinetic operations directly targeted this Condition Track for erosion, and a number of in-game events could and did affect it as well. If one Team reached “Collapse” on their Condition Track, then public opinion or regime stability for that side deteriorated and they immediately withdrew from the conflict.

The Ex GOSSAMER and RUNTIME Public Opinion condition tracker
The Ex GOSSAMER and RUNTIME Public Opinion condition tracker. Despite all the conventional options in play, the main way to affect the condition track was through non-kinetic and information operations, and these proved decisive.

Taking actions that would erode the enemy’s Condition Track was therefore the key to this game. GOSSAMER employed an Opposed Results Table (ORT) where the degree of overmatch (4:1, 5:1, etc.) was cross-referenced against “damage” rolled by White Cell on a single six-sided dice. The mechanics were designed so that both Kinetic and Non-Kinetic actions used the same ORT. Strategic Guidance and Objectives (SGOs) were chosen by the Command Teams at the beginning of the game as policy; achieving alignment between the tactical actions of the Field Forces and the SGOs issued by the Command Teams was extremely important.

We will not give a recap of the game here (a full After-Action Report is available upon request to the authors). However, the outcome – a decisive Federation/Red Force victory – surprised everyone. The game was “won” at the end of the third turn when the Canadian Government’s Condition Track reached Collapse, triggering a major political crisis and the immediate withdrawal of all Canadian troops from Baltika. The Federation teams grasped where the game’s centre of gravity lay, but the outcome was also facilitated by a series of ‘own-goals’ on the coalition side. Public Opinion became a disastrous vulnerability when Canadian and NATO forces moved in to engage the insurgents directly. They undertook (with no coordination with the Command Teams on that day) a series of game actions that had been established in advance as being toxic to Public Opinion, including NATO troops assaulting insurgent forces in a major populated area. All these actions caused severe damage to the Canadian Public Opinion Condition Track, and it required only a very modest Federation information warfare “push” to turn this into a killing blow for Canada’s mission. Realizing that they had shot themselves in the foot, these actions also caused mission paralysis on the Blue Force side in the final turn.

The Federation teams did a superb job of placing coalition forces in a position where they had to harm their own interests no matter which action they pursued. The NATO teams were unable to align their tactical actions with the strategic guidance given them at the start of the game, and were subsequently frustrated at seeing the kinetic actions they took undermine their own ability to achieve victory conditions. In a targeting sense, the Federation aligned capabilities against targets to generate effects to achieve specific objectives, both kinetically and non-kinetically. They were aided by a coalition side that struggled to do the same. Guidance from higher Command Teams was at some points absent on the coalition side, which caused, in the memorable words of the NATO Field Force Team leader, the infantry battle group to go “Leeroy Jenkins” – charging in alongside their Baltikan allies when time was short and they lacked good guidance from their own Command. While they achieved conspicuous tactical success, this was to the serious detriment of their own strategic narrative.

Ex GOSSAMER Game State at Beginning of Game
Ex GOSSAMER Final Game State, ENDEX. Federation conventional forces (in orange) provided long-distance fires (while denying doing so) but never crossed the border into Baltika.

At the end of the exercise, participants were required to write an unstructured reflection post to explore their experience. Throughout the week they also had to write “deep-dive analyses” on scholarly works related to Targeting which were provided ahead of time; these were assessed separately from the exercise but were connected to it thematically. Following the exercise there was also a “hot wash” synchronous Zoom session that started with a short plenary in which instructors and directing staff offered their thoughts, and then broke out into syndicates to wrap up and tie the exercise into larger discussions in the JCSP stream. The aspect of the game that most surprised the participants was that we had “allowed” Blue to fail.

Exercise RUNTIME

Exercise RUNTIME was held virtually at CFC from 17-22 May 2020, the academic week following Ex GOSSAMER. Ex RUNTIME was the delivery mechanism for the Cyber Domain module of JCSP’s Advanced Topics in Campaign Design class, the aim of which was: “To explore the scope of potential responses of states, acting either individually or in coalition, to malicious activities in the cyber domain with specific focus on those involving the use of military power.” Compromises were made because of the time constraints placed upon the design and development of the wargames. Ex RUNTIME was a “reset” of the scenario from Ex GOSSAMER, with Teams switching sides and roles so that all Teams previously playing Field Forces would play Command teams this time. Most teams that were previously playing Red were also now playing Blue, and vice versa.

In its major features and broad parameters, Ex RUNTIME was identical to Ex GOSSAMER. Where RUNTIME differed was in its introduction of a new layer of more nuanced rules governing the application of the Cyber domain to the situation. Important concepts such as Unit Connectivity, Zero-Day Vulnerabilities, and the interplay between Cyber Defence, DDoS Attack, and Cyber Intelligence were incorporated. We developed the cyber “layer” of rules in close consultation with an accomplished CAF cyber operator and represented effects rather than processes. There were a few other significant changes as well, including:

A sample Cyber Weapon from Ex RUNTIME.

  • More hidden information. Information about unit capabilities was kept hidden from the opposing side until they specifically investigated it with intelligence operations. The role of intelligence was therefore magnified, as was the amount of work required from White Cell to track what the two sides “knew” about one another, as the game remained double-blind.
  • Maritime units, under the control of the respective Command Teams instead of the Field Forces, were included for both sides – a NATO maritime force and a Federation submarine force.
  • Cyber-enabled units, both on the map under the control of the Field Forces and off-the-map under the control of the Command Teams, were now written into the game. They had options to launch cyber attacks (which could paralyze high-connectivity units temporarily), deploy cyber weapons (one-time use programs with potentially far-reaching effects), and use cyber defence to bolster their own and other friendly units’ network defences.
  • Cyber weapons employed a complex behind-the-scenes system whereby they could only be used to exploit certain weaknesses. Every unit in the game had their weaknesses randomly assigned, modified by their amount of network connectivity (the more connected the unit was, the more vulnerabilities it would potentially have). Pairing the right cyber weapon with the right vulnerability required intelligence, savvy, and no small amount of luck.

The intention was to create a game that represented, in an abstract way, some of the effects that can be generated within the cyber domain, without detailing specifics for how these effects are achieved. Emphasis was kept on teaching the complexity and limitations of cyber operations in an abstract, fast, and playable way. It was intended to spark thoughtful discussion and reflection among the student participants.

Ex RUNTIME still allowed the same conventional, unconventional, non-kinetic, and even nuclear options that Ex GOSSAMER did. Cyber operations were layered on top of these, and the scenario was the same as in Ex GOSSAMER, although additional units were placed for each side. Mechanically, execution of the game was identical to Ex GOSSAMER.

We will not give a recap of the game here (again, a full After-Action Report is available upon request). Ex RUNTIME drew out some important insights and lessons about the cyber domain during a crisis. However, this wargame also featured participants who fully remembered the mistakes and lessons of Ex GOSSAMER. From the opening moments, Ex RUNTIME saw a much more aggressive, kinetic approach to the scenario than had occurred in Ex GOSSAMER, partly due to the personalities of those in leadership positions on key teams. Rather than spread confusion and operate in the gray zone, where the cyber domain is arguably strongest, the Federation teams opted to make direct pushes on key objective cities in the hope of collapsing coalition public opinion before their own regime destabilized completely.

Ex GOSSAMER Game State at Beginning of Game
Ex RUNTIME Game State, ENDEX. This was a full-spectrum confrontation between Blue and Red that would have resulted in thousands of casualties by the end of the game.

Coalition responses were calculated to maximize intelligence, keep the Federation guessing, and avoid the “own-goal” mistakes that had been made in Ex GOSSAMER. This meant careful attention to targeting, avoidance of direct confrontation between NATO and insurgent forces, and the positioning of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence as a “tripwire” against the Federation blitz. They almost succeeded in collapsing Federation Regime Stability entirely on Turn 2 of the game. However, the Federation was likely to escalate further, and the most likely outcome of this playthrough of Ex RUNTIME was a Third World War. Saying that anybody “won” is therefore disingenuous.

In some ways this was unfortunate, because the cyber element of the game was better suited to non-kinetic and gray zone confrontations rather than for a hot conventional war. Cyber operations in Ex RUNTIME were designed to be intelligence- and time-intensive to do properly: a great deal of muckraking, network hygiene, and good fortune had to be sunk into it. All of these were in short supply once the Federation heavy armour crossed the Baltikan border. It did show some important points. Cyber operations require patience and time. Our representation of what would happen in an unprepared cyber battlefield that suddenly became a hot war was probably quite accurate: cyber might be able to support in some peripheral ways, but it would be a secondary consideration. There was one moment where, by complete coincidence, Blue Force cyber operators located a chain of identical zero-day vulnerabilities in Federation units. This could have been a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” moment that changed the nature of the situation fundamentally, but conditions in the game fell just short of this vulnerability being exploitable, and nothing resulted from the discovery.

If pre-game cyber intelligence had been available to both sides (pre-existing illumination of some enemy networks), then more could have been done with cyber operations during actual play, though the fundamental point about their utility during a sudden crisis stands. This has been noted as a lesson for future iterations. A specialist Canadian Armed Forces cyber operator was brought into the White Cell to help design the cyber operation rules for Ex RUNTIME, and to help track the complex cyber components of the game during play. Another student leader in a different stream of study was also brought into White Cell to track and simulate media play within Ex RUNTIME, carried out as a series of targeted posts by the Teams on Moodle.


We learned plenty from developing and running Exercises GOSSAMER and RUNTIME. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Time put into discussion, reflection, hot-washes, and after-action reports is never wasted. Ex GOSSAMER ended one day ahead of schedule, and EX RUNTIME ended two days ahead of schedule, in part to better facilitate discussions and a “hot wash” after the games’ culminating points had been reached.
  • There is great value in repetition, but also some risks. Iterating on the game meant that everyone had the basic idea by the time we started RUNTIME, and gave excellent points of comparison for the debriefs. But there were also instances in RUNTIME of participants playing the game rather than playing the scenario, since they were better acquainted with the rules.
  • The value of a free-to-fail environment. The people most surprised at the end of Ex GOSSAMER were the Red teams, who had not been expecting to win – they were certain that the scenario had to be rigged for a Blue victory. Ex GOSSAMER and RUNTIME had strict rules and procedures, but there were no scripted events after the initial scenario setup, and participants’ decisions drove all events. Perhaps most importantly, assessment of student work during the wargame was not based upon who won or lost.
  • The strength of online platforms. Over the course of two weeks we ran two complete custom-made wargames geared to fulfil specific curriculum objectives. 48 students, four DS, and four civilian academics were involved, plus a small White Cell. The games were run double-blind and asynchronously. These wargames originated as stand-ins for traditional activities because of the pandemic, but we learned that there was a great deal that we could do in terms of wargaming in the online environment that would have been extremely difficult to do face-to-face. While iterations of these exercises in the immediate future will be online due to the rampancy of covid-19 in Canada, some of them will likely be run online permanently due to the convenience and the power of the tools available, and our new familiarity with them.
  • Games bring us together. AY19-20 was broken by covid-19. We could not give the students back the rich mess life, activities, and face-to-face contact and networking opportunities that the pandemic took away from their experience at CFC. We could, however, ensure that academically their year did not end with posting replies onto threaded discussions. Most definitions of games and wargames involve the concept of “play”: elements of pretend, of joy, of tension, and of consciousness that is different from ordinary life. For two weeks, our students had the opportunity to play together. It was both serious and not serious, a learning opportunity and a chance to spend time with friends and colleagues playing. The value of this in the middle of a pandemic that has isolated us all cannot be overstated.
  • The main casualties were the White Cell. By the time Ex RUNTIME was over, the White Cell was completely burned out and not good for much for another week or so afterwards. Many of the students, having participated in two weeks’ worth of exercises, devoted a great deal more thought, effort, and time to playing the wargame than they strictly had to, so there was a good amount of fatigue all around by the close of Ex RUNTIME. Executing these games in the middle of a stressful pandemic was no help. It would be wise to take this into better account in future!

We are presently using those lessons to develop and expand CFC’s in-house wargaming capacity. We are running a “Wargaming for PME” course during CFC’s autumn semester, which includes an Ex GOSSAMER II. We intend for Ex RUNTIME II and GOSSAMER III to be conducted later in the year. We have also planned a JOINTEX wargame as the culminating event for the JCSP Component Capabilities course. All of these will be done with almost no budget and using existing technology platforms: the main expenditure is in staff effort and time, which is considerable on the front-end but worthwhile for the learning experience created. CFC is beginning to devote significant attention to wargaming as a pedagogical/andragogical tool for professional military education, and the exigencies of the pandemic have taught us a great deal about what is actually required to make immersive, educational, and effective wargames work in a virtual environment. As CFC’s director of academics is fond of saying these days, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”


Robert C. Engen, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College. In November 2020 he received a Canadian Defence Academy Commander’s Commendation for his work on incorporating virtual wargames into the CFC curriculum during the pandemic.

LtCol Scott Jenkinson is an Australian Army exchange instructor at the Canadian Forces College.


Sebastian J. Bae

By Sebastian J. Bae

Defence Analyst, RAND Corporation

Adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University

Educational wargaming is experiencing a remarkable resurgence, reflected in the growth of wargaming Fight Clubs and the embrace of wargames as pedagogical tools in the classroom. From civilian educators to senior military leaders, there is an increasing consensus that wargames can be powerful learning tools – better equipping future decisionmakers to face a broad spectrum of challenges. As universities, both civilian and military, continue to develop a model for 21st century learning and education, wargaming and other forms of experiential learning may increasingly become permeant fixtures in curriculums. This begs the question: how does one cultivate wargaming at the university?

There is no singular, definitive answer. Several universities, such as King’s College London, U.S. Army War College, and U.S. Naval War College, have established excellent wargaming programs, each with their unique character. However, if a university is aiming to build a wargaming program, storied wargaming histories or boasting one of the giants of the field are not prerequisites. Over the last two years, Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (SSP), U.S. Marine Corps Command & Staff College (CSC), and the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) have all established respective wargaming initiatives. With the support of amazing partners and colleagues, these initiatives feature a wargaming lab, student societies, and wargaming design courses where students research, design, develop, and execute an original educational wargame.

The key to success and rapid growth of these initiatives lies in cultivating a wargaming insurgency, a grassroots movement to foster experiential learning on campus. Admittedly, the idea of establishing any wargaming initiative, whether an extracurricular student society or official course, can be daunting. Institutions of higher education, whether civilian or military, may be resistant to change, reluctant to assume risk, and may stifle innovation with bureaucracy. Hence, for those aiming to start wargaming programs of their own, I offer four potential overarching principles for conducting a wargaming insurgency: crawl, walk, run; find champions and sponsors; collaborate to generate growth and value; and be adaptable and exploit opportunities.

Heroes Rising: Three Kingdoms game

Heroes Rising: Three Kingdoms, an original educational wargame about the warring Three Kingdoms period in ancient China. The wargame was designed by students in the Basics of Wargaming course at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.

Crawl, Walk, Run

Be patient and meticulously build your wargaming program, resisting the urge to run when you’re better off crawling. In the beginning, progress may be gradual, but these early steps will most likely become foundational cornerstones. This may sound simple, even obvious, but the temptation to skip basic steps is formidable – especially as organizational pressures and expectations rise. But like any budding insurgency, overextension can be a fatal enemy. In 2018, the Georgetown wargaming program was incredibly nascent, comprised of two Sunday seminar sessions per semester. Yet, these Sunday seminars served as critical incubators by fostering interest among the student body and piloting different approaches to teaching wargame design. Students from those early seminars would later comprise the first cohort of my Basics of Wargaming course at Georgetown and become student executives in the Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS). Early experimentation and mistakes helped refine my course for its debut in 2019.

Many wargaming initiatives fail because they attempt to do too much, too quickly. The initial choice of wargames to play (or buy) is one example. For my courses, I predominantly utilize Game of Thrones Risk, Friedrich, and Axis & Allies as introductory games. The vast majority of my students, whether civilian or military, have little to no experience in hobby gaming or professional wargaming. The most common mistake is to force novice players to wrestle with an intimidating and complex game. Any existing ember of interest can be unceremoniously snuffed out. Therefore, the first games they’re introduced to must be simple, accessible, and dynamic. For instance, the rules for Friedrich, a game about the 7 Years War, is the size of a playing card. Nevertheless, whenever I run Friedrich, whether for colonels or civilian graduate students, the players learn about constraints of logistics, the importance of maneuver, and how to manage priorities against risks. Most importantly, the players want to play more and gain a taste for the power of game-based learning. It is an added bonus that the three aforementioned games contain a wide range of simple game mechanics, such as card-based adjudication, point to point movement, effect cards, and variable unit types. This allows students to begin assembling their mental repository of gaming mechanics. Later on, the students can advance to more complex, robust wargames, such as Empire of the Sun, A Distant Plain, Race to the Rhine, Twilight Struggle, and digital wargames like Command: PE. This steady, incremental process is similarly applicable in assisting educators unfamiliar with game-based learning in integrating wargames into their classroom. The key is to adopt an iterative approach, aiming to build on a litany of small successes.

In January, Georgetown students played Game of Thrones Risk at a game night hosted by the Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS).

Find Champions & Sponsors

Insurgencies without support are doomed to fail. This is as true in the halls of a university as it is in the mountains of Afghanistan. Support comes in two major forms, which I characterize as champions and sponsors. Champions are individuals or organizations that advocate for your cause both internally and externally, providing critical institutional cover and impetus for your insurgency to thrive. Sponsors provide material support or services, including games and funding.

At all three universities, the support of steadfast champions and sponsors proved absolutely critical in the inception of their respective wargaming programs. Rebecca Patterson, the Associate Director of SSP, not only offered the opportunity, but actively fostered the growth of my course at Georgetown. Similarly, Jonathan Phillips, Dean of Academics, COL Matthew Neumeyer, Deputy Director and Dean of Students, Michael Ronza, Deputy Director of Academic Operations, and, my co-instructors at CSC, Professors Craig Hayden and Paul Gelpi provided the impetus to create a wargaming design course within their Gray Scholars Program. Meanwhile, the Navy Marine Forces Center at RAND served as the critical sponsor, providing the funding and research support for the course. To establish the USNA Naval History Wargaming Lab (NHWL) and the corresponding wargaming design course, Claude Berube, director of the USNA Museum, and Marcus Jones, the inaugural NHWL director, continue to fulfill the roles of champions, sponsors, and collaborators.

The commercial gaming community has also proved indispensable in terms of sponsorship and support. In January, GUWS was only a few weeks old without a single game in its collection. By November, the GUWS gaming library featured over 130 unique game titles. This remarkable leap was made possible through donations from individual hobbyists, designers, and game publishers like PHALANX, GMT, MMP, Hollandspiele, the Dietz Foundation, Worthington Publishing, and numerous others. Consequently, the GUWS gaming library presently supports gaming sessions, enables game research for student game designers, and provides a game repository for partner educational institutions. The possibilities are no longer constrained by personal collections. The universe of games which students can explore is constantly expanding. The harsh reality is that funding and institutional arm-twisting turn the institutional gears, but with vocal champions and sponsors challenges can be overcome.

USNA midshipmen pose for a group photo after playing Assassin’s Mace, an educational wargame about modern conflict in the Indo-Pacific theater. Assassin’s Mace is designed by the U.S. Marine Corps Wargaming Division.

Collaborate to Generate Growth & Value

Your wargaming insurgency has steadily garnered experience, further armed with champions and sponsors in your corner – now what? How do you grow and avoid stagnation? A common solution is to collaborate with partners and aim to provide a service that generates value both within and beyond your home institution. This is mainly achieved in two ways: producing useful games and fostering long-term institutional relationships.

At all three universities, students research, design, develop, and execute educational wargames on a variety of military case studies. Aspiring wargame designers experience firsthand the challenges, the revelations, and the joy of the game design process. But just as importantly, the course produces a unique and recurring resource: a steady supply of educational wargames. At the USNA, the forthcoming NHWL wargame design course specifically selects military case studies to support existing courses of instruction. Consequently, educational wargames designed by midshipmen can be recycled back into other USNA courses as teaching tools – creating a virtuous cycle. Likewise, educational games designed by CSC students will eventually be shared with partnering Marine Expeditionary Units as training tools for Marines. In future iterations, we will be experimenting with partner instructors and organizations to serve as sponsors for the students’ games. This will allow the student design teams to craft games for a specific purpose and sponsor. The underlying principle is to create educational games with purpose, to provide value back to classrooms and partners.

Establishing a pipeline of educational wargames to partner organizations can serve as the basis for habitual, long-term relationships. In early 2020, my Georgetown students demonstrated their original educational wargames for the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. Hunched over their wargames, my Georgetown students interacted with their military peers over history, military strategy, and wargame design. But more importantly, this event cultivated a continuing and fruitful partnership with the Krulak Center – including GUWS’s participation in the 2020 Viking Shield Wargaming Tournament at Marine Corps University and annual wargame demonstrations from my course. The Simulation Education Division at Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army War College, and U.S. Naval College have also served as valuable partners. They have conducted wargames for my students, provided professional expertise, and volunteered as webinar speakers. Our partnerships are not limited to military Professional Military Education institutions, but include think tanks, commercial gaming forums, and international universities. The sheer range of partnerships has empowered students to showcase their wargames at conventions, garner interest in educational wargaming, and establish a network of collaborators. If there is a secret to building a successful wargaming insurgency, it may lie in finding like-minded collaborators and maintaining enduring partnerships.

Georgetown graduate students run Hellenic Struggle, an original educational wargame on the Peloponnesian War, for Marine Corps University students at the Brute Krulak Center.

Be Adaptable and Exploit Opportunities

My favorite military maxim is: No plan survives first contact. Although trite and over-used, its relevancy is undeniable. At the beginning of the year, GUWS had grand ambitions and a packed agenda. We had facilities booked, speakers arranged, and games prepared. Then COVID struck with a fury, shutting down campuses and suddenly thrusting everyone into the virtual learning environment. None of our plans survived first contact with 2020. Consequently, we found ourselves in a precarious situation – adapt or become obsolete.

Pre-COVID, in-person game nights and demonstrations were our marquee program, the principle means of engaging with our membership and the wargaming community. Yet, with the ongoing ban on campus activities, we had to find new ways to remain relevant. In the early weeks of COVID, GUWS pivoted its once a month guest speaker series into a weekly webinar series. Originally a tangential effort, the series now features a diverse collection of wargaming topics, ranging from designing counterinsurgency wargames to Title 10 wargaming in the U.S. Air Force. Although challenging at first, the webinar series proved to be wildly successful, establishing GUWS as a known entity in the professional wargaming community. At the same time, game nights steadily shifted to digital platforms like Steam, Tabletop Simulator, Zoom, and Discord. The shift to the digital environment also opened new opportunities to leverage our partners. Unshackled from geographic co-location, professional defense wargamers from across the country could participate in student-led design presentations, which widened the pool of potential webinar speakers. Admittedly, the digital transition was not seamless nor effortless. Nevertheless, the ability to rapidly adapt and embrace new mediums allowed GUWS not only to survive the challenges of COVID, but to grow in unexpected ways.   

Cover slides from various GUWS webinar sessions covering a myriad of topics.

A Global Wargaming Insurgency

Wargaming is not a panacea for education and training; it is fraught with limitations. Nevertheless, when properly employed, wargaming can serve as a potent experiential learning tool. This has propelled an exciting wave of educational wargaming from the Australian Defense College to the U.S. Marine Corps. But islands of excellence are not enough. The plethora of educational wargaming initiatives cannot be trapped on individual islands – doomed to repeat the same mistakes and duplicate efforts. If educational wargaming is to evolve and endure, a global wargaming insurgency may be required. This will likely demand additional time, effort, and energy, but if successful, the dividends could be remarkable.

Sebastian J. Bae, a defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, works in wargaming, emerging technologies, the future of warfare, and strategy and doctrine for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches a graduate course on designing educational wargames. He teaches similar courses at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and U.S. Naval Academy. He is also the faculty advisor to the Georgetown University Wargaming Society, the Co-Chair of the Military Operations Research Society Wargaming Community of Practice, a Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity, and serves on the Executive Committee for the Educational Wargaming Cooperative. Previously, he served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. 


Caitlyn Leong

By Caitlyn Leong

President of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society

Sponsors drive the objective, design, and implementation of wargames.1 When it comes to educational wargaming, the instructor is often cast in the sponsor role, driving the selection of games that match the objectives of their course or program. However, I argue that students should also be viewed as the game sponsors in conjunction with instructors, since it is their educational needs that must be met. Acknowledging that students are also sponsors of educational wargames means that one must understand and prioritize the student perspective when bringing games into the classroom or starting a wargaming initiative.

So, from a student’s perspective, what are the wargaming opportunities and challenges? How can wargaming initiatives ensure that they are providing the best educational experience? In an effort to answer these questions, I will draw on my experiences as a wargamer over the last five years, my experiences as a student of Georgetown University’s wargaming initiative, and my current role as president of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS). Focusing on the role of students within a sponsor framework, I offer my insights on educational wargaming at both the micro and macro levels. I discuss how wargaming can be both appealing and daunting for students in the classroom, and what I believe a wargaming initiative should do at the organizational level to provide a solid educational experience.

The Student Perspective: The Allure and Dangers of Educational Wargaming

Wargaming is a powerful tool for experiential learning, giving players space to explore new ideas, scenarios, and conflict dynamics. As an educational tool, wargames promise to educate the civilian decision-maker and the warfighter in how to think about war before a conflict ever starts. Players can grapple with complex problems in an environment where their actions feel real but have no real-world consequences. As a student, I have witnessed the powerful allure of wargaming. I first became interested in wargaming because it offered an opportunity to explore the real-world applications of concepts that I had learned about in my lectures and readings. Through my educational wargaming experiences, I have schemed with my peers to find ways to thwart dirty bomb attacks and observed as military officers and civilian officials try to devise a cohesive grand strategy for future conflict. As a graduate student, I have rolled dice so poorly that I doomed my team to an early loss, despite our well-thought-out strategy. In all of my personal wargaming experiences, one thing is clear: gaming in the classroom allows students to take an active role in their learning and generates excitement for the course material.

Despite the promise of educational wargames, there are several pathologies of educational wargaming that highlight dangers of poorly applied educational wargames. Games may not take place in the correct environment, fail to account for the skill and rank of their players, and may not provide opportunities for student feedback or adapt to student needs. As both a student and a facilitator, I have witnessed several poorly executed Professional Military Education (PME) and civilian “educational” wargames that left players dissatisfied and learning objectives unmet. With PME, there is the challenge of accounting for rank and relative skillsets in the student pool, as students may expect to be assigned to roles or teams based on seniority and may use that seniority to push their in-game agenda over lower-ranking peers.

I facilitated a game for a group of civilian government officials and military officers where the senior-most player leveraged their rank and refused to hear the inputs of the rest of the group when it came time to finalize their move sheet. As a student, I once had a professor who ran a wargame for our course that was worth a quarter of our overall grade. The goal of the game was to test how well we could represent various roles in the U.S. government. We received no advance reading and were assigned to our roles on the day of the wargame, when we were informed that we would be graded in competition with each other. We walked out of the classroom three hours later, after a debrief where we were critiqued on our performance in front of the entire class but were not allowed to offer feedback on the game. A group of my peers vowed to never participate in a wargame again.

So, how can these dangers be avoided when wargaming with students?

Wargames should take place in an environment where players feel comfortable dynamically engaging with the game scenario. The game should be realistic and create an immersive experience where players are encouraged to freely interact with each other and the game material. To accomplish this, instructors need to carefully prepare their players for the wargame and their assigned roles. This is especially true for wargaming novices, who may not fully understand their roles and the game material.2 This is further exacerbated when there is a grade applied to their performance during the wargame, which can create perverse incentives for competition and magnify any existing personality issues in the classroom. I have seen how a poorly executed wargame is more likely to teach students to dread wargames than it is to meet any stated learning objectives. Grading an educational wargame, if it must be done, should be based simply on attendance and a baseline level of engagement with the scenario.

For military professionals, one must also consider the ranks of the players who will be participating in the game or course and how they may impact the game. Having players who try to pull rank or create hierarchies that raise the inputs of some players over others inhibits the overall educational experience. On this point, it is important to consider how to level the field. Here, history offers a potential solution. The U.S. Naval War College’s (NWC) interwar wargames (1919-1941) were an integral part of the PME course of study, with a class composition ranging from O-2s to O-8s.1 With such a wide range of ranks, it was critical to the wargames’ success that NWC staff found a way to encourage collaboration. The uniform of the day for all wargames was civilian clothing, no rank insignia were worn, and players did not address each other by rank.2 While clothing and a change of protocol seem simple, they can go a long way towards fostering the educational environment needed for all students to learn from a wargame. Unless rank is strictly necessary in the context of the game, it is best to find ways to set your players on equal footing, whether that is done through protocol changes or carefully monitoring discussion to make sure all students are heard.

Wargaming at the NWC in the 1940s

Wargaming at the NWC in the 1940s.1 Players are seen in civilian clothing, staff and observers wear their dress blues.

It is also important to recognize that students possess varying levels of experience int terms of wargaming. Some may have participated in wargames many times in a professional capacity or as hobby wargamers. Others may have absolutely no exposure to wargames. For wargaming novices, both military and civilian, it is helpful to introduce students to wargames using commercial games. In this instance, one must be careful to select the “right” games and the right delivery method. Just as students have different learning styles, they may have different ways of learning to play a game. Some students may do just fine with a twenty-page rulebook and no guidance, but I have found that it helps to offer varied ways to understand the game. Students can watch rule videos, play or watch practice games, and rely on simplified reference sheets as they get used to gameplay. The games should also be iterative, so multiple groups of students can play at the same time with different outcomes or can play the game multiple times, switching teams or sides.

Lastly, it is also important to establish a feedback loop, where each game session allows time for a hotwash discussion to address what went well, what went wrong, and what the students would like to see in future games. By giving an opportunity to provide feedback to the instructor, students can know that their concerns and input have been heard and may be acted upon in the future. This is invaluable for helping students understand the value of wargaming, as well as identifying areas where the application or design of the game needs to be adjusted for future use.

Avoiding Danger: What a Wargaming Initiative Needs to Do for Students

Having highlighted the appeal and dangers of educational wargaming from the student perspective, I will attempt to offer brief and general insights that can be used at the institutional or organizational level to maintain a focus on the student as your sponsor. I have found through my experience with GUWS that these insights are critical to the success or failure of wargaming initiative.

1. Focus on providing diverse options for students & instructors

All wargames are ultimately driven by their players and this is especially true if one views the students as sponsors. To ensure that students have the best experience with the wargame, instructors who are not wargaming experts themselves should consider bringing in experienced facilitators or game masters to help run the game. Your institution or organization can provide support to the instructors by providing them with wargaming spaces and connecting them to experts and facilitators who can help them implement effective educational games. This will also help lower the cost of entry for wargames in classes.

At the organizational level, your initiative should provide a wide range of wargaming opportunities. Options include miniatures, crisis simulations, social game nights, and more. A variety of choices increases the likelihood a student will find a wargame or event that interests them. In particular, creating opportunities for civil-military engagement provides members with new perspectives on their counterparts’ roles and responsibilities and expands their professional networks.

2. Set a culture of accessibility and engagement

Like the classroom, a diverse membership will bring a greater variety of experiences, interests, and perspectives to any wargaming initiative. The responsibility of instilling a welcoming culture typically falls on its leaders to lead by example. If done right, this can reap tremendous benefits from informal mentorships to creative synergies. Yet, this also means that students will most likely possess varying levels of interest and time to devote to wargaming. For instance, full-time undergraduate students typically have more availability than part-time graduate students who work during normal office hours. Additionally, any wargaming initiative is competing for limited attention and time of its members, ranging from childcare to internships. So, it is important to find an organizational rhythm that encourages sustained accessibility and engagement between your initiative and your membership – which require consistency and regularity. Social media and platforms like Discord can also be incredibly useful in amplifying your institutional reach and maintaining engagement.

All of this does not need to happen right out of the gate, but gradually finding ways to offer a spectrum of low to high engagement opportunities will improve member participation and overall engagement. Identify what your organization can do well in the wargaming space and start from there, leveraging your existing resources and connections to established wargamers and initiatives.

3. Ask for feedback & adapt as needed

Just as an instructor should ensure that they are soliciting student feedback, a wargaming initiative should consistently ask for feedback and be ready to adapt as needed. Ask for general feedback on the initiative or feedback on a specific wargame or event. Your initiative does not need to be all things to all people.  However, keeping abreast of what your members want and find useful is necessary for long-term success and the sustainability of your initiative.

In the early months of running GUWS, we were forced entirely online shortly after our first on-campus game night. We soon realized that the members emailing us for professional advice and resources were not the same members attending our game nights and seminars. Armed with that knowledge, we were able to stand up a digital library of resources, including books, articles, tactical decision games, and a catalogue of our physical game library. We also sent out surveys soliciting feedback about what games people would like to play in virtual game sessions and what speakers they wanted to see during our webinar series. By adapting to our circumstances, we were able to reach more of our members and provide experiences that were meaningful to them.

These three recommendations are by no means the only path to success, but they should be strong considerations for any wargaming initiative. Maintaining a focus on the student as sponsor is key to getting students excited about wargames, ensuring that your wargaming efforts will last long into the future.

Caitlyn Leong is a M.A. candidate and CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Fellow at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. She has over five years of experience in wargaming and currently serves as the President of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society. Caitlyn previously served as Director of Simulations for The George Washington University’s Strategic Crisis Simulations. She specializes in wargaming, emerging technologies, and cybersecurity policy.



1 Stephen Downes-Martin. "Your boss, players, and sponsor: the three witches of war gaming." Naval War College Review 67, no. 1 (2014): 31-41.

2 Elizabeth M. Bartels. "Gaming–Learning at Play.".ORMS Today 41 (2014).

3 John Curry and Chris Carlson. The United States Naval War College 1936 Wargame Rules: USN Wargaming Before WWII Volume I. The History of Wargaming Project, 2019, 11; John M. Lillard. Playing War: Wargaming and US Navy Preparations for World War II. U of Nebraska Press, 2016.

4 John M. Lillard. Playing War: Wargaming and US Navy Preparations for World War II, 37.

5 John Curry and Chris Carlson. The United States Naval War College 1936 Wargame Rules, 16.


Volko Ruhnke

by Volko Ruhnke

Summary: Games are sharable models of complex human systems and therefore are potent tools for training foreign and defence affairs specialists.

Some years ago, I got to play a crisis game during a conference at a US Marine Corps research center in Quantico, Virginia. Master wargame facilitator Major Tom Mouat, visiting from MODUK, led about a dozen older and younger defence professionals through a “matrix game”—a combination role-play, boardgame, and debate—simulating a then present-day international confrontation over North Korean missile tests, with the real-world situation as the game’s starting point. I and a partner drew the role of the United States. Although I had nothing at stake, I became emotionally involved. Indeed, I became so dismayed with my US teammate’s pushy diplomacy and its damage to our regional relations (to the benefit and amusement of the experienced Russia team) that at one point I resigned my position in frustration.

The gameplay had seen loads of tension and intrigue. But in the debrief, Mouat brought out the fact that no one in the simulated crisis had dared to escalate to military use of force and that that had been the outcome every other time he had run the game. The interactions especially among China, the Koreas, and Japan tended to keep a lid on things whatever the mutual suspicions and clash of interests—and that held true for the player teams even though no lives would really be risked. The maneuvers of the individual actors featured high drama, but the overall system maintained a stubborn equilibrium throughout, in experiment after experiment.

In the months that followed, the real-world Korean crisis continued to build, with more provocations from Pyongyang answered by White House bluster. But as I watched the international maneuvers, the situation seemed to exhibit the underlying dynamics of stability viscerally familiar to me from Mouat’s game. As I happened to be dabbling in a political prediction market at the time, I bet on the DPRK crisis passing without any fighting. And I collected my winnings when indeed it did. Though no expert on Korea, I had learned something from the brief gameplay at Quantico and out-bet the crowd.


As an intelligence analyst over three decades, I frequently bumped into the idea that only some of us were adept at what I heard termed “systems thinking” or “strategic thinking”. For the first two-thirds of my career, I pondered what exactly constituted that sort of thinking. For the final third, I explored whether it could be taught.

Why is the world of human affairs so hard to understand, forecast, and to navigate? It is, I contend, mainly because of what we call “system effects”, the fact that changing interactions of many parts produce a whole that is fundamentally different in nature than any of those parts. As an instructor colleague of mine would explain, an H2O molecule is not in its nature wet, it is the interaction of molecules that makes water wet. International and defence affairs feature not inanimate molecules but human beings who observe and react, innovate and adapt to create characteristics such as crises or wars that cannot be understood through the description of any human but is something not only larger but different in kind.

These affairs are, formally speaking, complex adaptive systems. If you have noticed effects in defence and foreign affairs such as stability or instability, security or insecurity, tipping points, ripples, or vicious circles, this is what you have a hold of: complexity. And the term is apt: it is devilishly difficult to hold and consider enough such dynamic interactions in one’s mind to competently project the effects of operational plans or diplomatic strategies on these systems.

The main trick to a successful defence strategy, then, is not so much understanding and building the strategy’s elements—ends, ways, and means, in one formulation. It is rather to account for potential outcomes that the interactions of many strategies might produce, strategies each incorporating overlapping but not identical ends and often asymmetric ways and means. The rare ability to do that well is the essence of what my old intelligence colleagues called strategic thinking. And that challenge applies to all planning in the context of massed human affairs. We can chop up the problem to understand its pieces—that’s the definition of analysis. But seeing the whole is a different level of challenge. To succeed, we don’t need better analysts, we need better synthesists.


By the last decade of my career, it had become evident that systems complexity was the key barrier to intelligence agencies providing policy and operational consumers with effective opportunity analysis. The most consequential challenge for an analytic training curriculum then would be, how can we equip analysts to better deal with the complexity of the world? Searching far and wide, the answer boiled down to a single word: models.

Models—defined as purposeful simplifications—are notoriously nettlesome. All models are wrong, as mathematician George Box long ago told us. But the upshot of the prevalence of complex systems in life is that modelbuilding is the best tool that we have to obtain for ourselves a fighting chance at understanding at least the most important aspects of the problems facing us. Professionals in disciplines whose thinking can be proven right or wrong—mathematicians, scientists, and engineers—all know this to be true.

And that is what conflict simulations, the sort of games discussed in these pages, are: models. They are purposeful simplifications of human interactions, of strategic interaction specifically. Indeed, games are tailor made to model and convey the interaction of strategy. For example, a game’s key elements—victory conditions, mechanics of play, and pieces—each map almost one-for-one to the ends, ways, and means that comprise strategy. And, unlike purely statistical or computational models, games with human players who represent the key actors in the system to be modeled leverage the fact that humans tend to make good simulators of humans.

But there is another way that games, manual tabletop games such as board games especially, can teach us more powerfully than can the most intricate of computerized simulations. Manual models lay it all out on the table. They enable the rapid sharing of one or more experts’ internal mental models by inviting students to climb inside and drive a dynamic model around themselves. There is no black-box computer code; instead, the players (in the classroom, typically with facilitators’ help) learn and through play internalize the model’s rules, can compare the game’s simplifications to their own view of the real-world system under consideration, and thereby blend their own mental models with that of the experts to obtain a synthesis—a better model. Tom Mouat’s game on Korea succeeded in teaching me, in part, because Tom as an astute observer of defence affairs and a clever instructional designer who chose well what to put in the game and what to leave out. By experiencing Tom’s model of a Korean crisis, I could readily take the next step of merging it with my own understanding of Northeast Asia that I already possessed as I came to the table that day.

Is strategic thinking learned?

One year, I had the opportunity to test out a developmental training game at a US hobby boardgame convention. The purpose of this tabletop game would be to teach US political analysts about the dynamics of parliamentary systems. Its learning objective stemmed from the fact that so many democratic systems around the world use the parliamentary form of government while the United States does not.

The opening situation in the game featured a ruling coalition in a minority government facing an opposition that possessed the potential to engineer a crisis, organize a new coalition, and thereby enter a majority government, enact its policies, and win the game. In our first trial run at the game con, two Canadian players and one Swedish player happened to take part, with US players taking the remaining roles. These three foreign players looked at the board, immediately caucused, generated a parliamentary crisis, formed a new governing coalition, and ran the tables against their US opponents.

We instructors were happy to see our little model of parliamentary systems deliver its lesson. But now we feared that the winning move would be too obvious to our students and thereby lessen the impact of the exercise. To our surprise, the classroom challenge proved instead to be the opposite: students almost never pulled off the quick win that the Canadian and Swedish hobbyists had. And, mind you, our students were not random folks off the street but professional political analysts, albeit young ones.

The decisive difference was not raw smarts but the fact that the three hobbyists had grown up in parliamentary systems and learned their dynamics over time. They held in their minds the same sort of strategic capacity that talented politicians possess from a career of observing and maneuvering within their own political system or that a great battlefield tactician has acquired from years of training exercises and perhaps from operating in real-world military conflict. We can build effective mental models of complex affairs—it just takes a lot of time.

With our game, we had the opportunity to accelerate such lifelong learning by at least briefly immersing our students in a readily accessible, purpose-built simplification of the sort of complex political systems they would be seeking to understand in the real world. Importantly, the dynamic simulation of a game would enable them to operate that simplified system and experiment. Our student players would internalize parliamentary dynamics from our classroom political game, as I did in Tom Mouat’s North Korea game.

At a minimum, the parliamentary coalitions game succeeded in efficiently sharing hard-won expertise with junior analysts. I had co-designed the game with a senior political analyst who had personally lived through two decades of a region’s political development, and we based the game on that setting. To him, the training game was his “brain on a table”. He could deliver a lecture to analyst students on key principles of parliamentary systems, but that over an hour could only touch the wavetops. To convey the myriad interactions that his internal mental model took into account and that made his experience so valuable to us would have taken days—if he could convey them at all. But, in our game, players would experience most of them in a 90-minute game play and discussion session.

And students would retain the dynamics they experienced better than any words they might hear or see on a slide. Routinely, former students who I might meet years later would recount to me what had happened in my classroom games, what they had done and what their opponents had done to them, far more often than I would hear about past lectures or other more typical classroom activities. I myself vividly remember the details of the Korea game at Quantico but can no longer tell you much about the conference’s lectures or panels or what I may have learned from them.

Planning for Shock

Games as a teaching tool seem not only potent in the face of complexity but irreplaceable. How are we to teach the nature of complex system interactions without dynamic models? How are we to enable students to access, experiment with, and innovate within those dynamics without manual models that they can operate themselves and then instantly see why what just happened happened? How other than through games are we to model manually human beings’ interaction, adaptation, and innovation—the realm of strategy—without players in the loop, human actors to pursue their ends with ways and means?

In defence and foreign affairs, the greatest threat to effective plans is something that we might call strategic shock or system shock. Complex adaptive systems have a tendency not only to produce dramatic, non-liner outcomes but also eventually to change their very rules of operation. International systems are hardly immune to such rapid transformations. The Great Depression, the advent of the Global War on Terror, the Arab Awakening, the rise of Trumpism in the United States: these were all system shocks, near impossible to foresee but with dramatic effects on national interests. Northeast Asia in the face of the North Korean threat is fundamentally stable, until the day it is not.

Ferreting out the small sudden stimuli or slow buildup of underlying change that can yield a whole new system behavior is dauntingly difficult. We stand almost no chance of forecasting and therefore planning for system shocks without the most exquisite understanding of whatever the complex human interactions at play and the ability to experiment within models. To seek to equip our officers, officials, and other professionals to navigate human complexity without human gameplay as a teaching tool would be to bring a knife to a gunfight, and perhaps not even that.


Volko Ruhnke is a retired US Central Intelligence Agency analyst, hobby board wargamer since childhood, and published designer of numerous titles for the California-based GMT Games LLC. All his comments here are merely his own. Prior to his career at CIA, he worked for a contractor performing analytic gaming for the US Army and then in the Department of the Army. At CIA he covered a wide range of accounts across three decades, including military and terrorist threats, senior policy support, and analytic tradecraft and instruction. In and beyond CIA, he sought to expand the use of tabletop games for training and research. His commercial tabletop simulations have won numerous industry awards and routinely sell out. His published game designs and co-designs on national security topics include:

  • Fire in the Lake—Insurgency in Vietnam, 2014, Boardgamegeek Best Wargame
  • A Distant Plain—Insurgency in Afghanistan, 2013
  • Andean Abyss—Insurgency in Colombia, 2012, Charles S. Roberts Award
  • Labyrinth—The War on Terror, 2010, Charles S. Roberts Award

Elizabeth M. Bartels

By Elizabeth M. Bartels

Co-director of the Center for Gaming and an associate policy researcher, RAND Corporation

The benefits of games for military education are well documented: in the words of previous U.S. Department of Defense leadership: “Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat.” New guidance for professional military education has called out the importance of games, arguing “Curricula should leverage live, virtual, constructive, and gaming methodologies with wargames and exercises involving multiple sets and repetitions to develop deeper insight and ingenuity.” Games also feature in calls to further revitalize defense education—including by applying social science approaches and illustrating new paradigms for competition.

While games are a powerful teaching tool, not all games can serve all these purposes. Like games for research, which are designed to produce specific types of information, different educational game designs excel at different tasks. Rather than making one-size-fits-all promises about what games can achieve, may require tailoring games for use in the classroom to their specific learning objectives.

Mini-games for teaching fundamental concepts

One category of games popular in U.S. undergraduate education is the use of “mini-games.” These short exercises are intended to enliven the classroom and reinforce key concepts, particularly those that might be counterintuitive. Perhaps the best known of these is a version of the famous game theory problem of the prisoner’s dilemma, illustrating the dynamics between two actors who must decide whether to cooperate or defect. While the game’s theoretic problem is fairly tractable, over time instructors have found utility in having students role play through the scenario to observe how their own decisionmaking is shaped.

So, what then are the characteristics of these “mini-games” and their purpose in the classroom? These games are played in small groups (often two teams each made up of a single player), involve roleplaying and follow simple rules. They often consist of only one decision, with a very clear set of finite choices about how to interact. Generally, these games involve very simple prompts, including instructor cuing and perhaps a simple handout. Many of these games are available online from other instructors, and most take only a portion of a class period—often 10-15 minutes—to play through.


In turn, this simple structure makes them well suited to communicate information—with set rules and limited role play options, students are making decisions in a world fully of the faculty’s design. This means there is not much space for players to inject their own understanding of the topic of study—instead, the game is teaching students with a fairly traditional, top down approach. The simple structure of these games also means that they are more appropriate to foundational educational objectives—particularly application of general concepts to the concrete example of the game. Higher-order tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation tend to be absent from these simple activities. In short, these games may enliven and reinforce traditional instruction, but they are unlikely to promote deeper engagement and innovation.

Role playing for peer learning and community building

A second class of games used in the classroom are more complex roleplaying games, in which multiple students take on roles with objects and constraints to try to solve a shared problem. In the U.S., several games of this model are available through think tanks like United States Institute of Peace and  Council on Foreign Relations. In contrast to the mini-games’ focus on individual concepts, these role-playing games expand the aperture to look at a broader scenario, with stronger ties to real world problems. For example, games of this type might illustrate international negotiations in the UN, sub-state actors navigating a civil war, or interagency actors responding to a crisis.

As a result of the more complex topics of these role-playing games, the game designs themselves tend to have more moving parts then mini-games. In particular, the number of roles is usually much greater (often one role per student), and the scope for action much wider than in the smaller games. In addition to conventional role playing, it may also be possible to leverage differences in player background to achieve the same effect. For example, RAND Australia has run games related to whole of government response to cyber incidents using the 360 framework. In these games, the 360 approach is designed to bring together diverse real-world experts to look at a problem from multiple angles. Regardless of set-up, game materials usually consist of a common scene-setting scenario and role-specific documents outlining objectives, capabilities and red lines. There may also be rules governing communication between groups, but generally the role capabilities provide the bulk of the rules governing what actions can and cannot be taken. Put differently, they are both more complex, and less structured than the mini-games.

The broad scope of play and open rules makes these role-playing games well suited to peer learning and community building. The wider playing field allows these games to become forums for analysis and synthesis of different concepts, as well as applying theory to the specific case of the game. Because of the number of actors and the range of possible behaviors, players have the ability to bring in far more of their own experience, and it is generally more difficult for the instructor to monitor all interactions to vet the information that players are incorporating. On one hand, this can be ideal when bringing together experienced students with diverse specialties—such a forum can allow students to exchange a great deal of information, and quickly form relationships of trust with others. On the other, this also makes such games difficult to assess student learning based on play alone. There is also a very real chance that players may learn things that are deeply reinforced through the game play, but are not actually correct. As a result, these games may be less beneficial with less-experienced audiences, and generally need to be complemented with post game activities for potential correction and assessment.

Structured games to experience a system

The next category of games also explores more complex topics then the mini-games, but seeks to do so through more structured game designs. This greater structure makes these games ideal for exploring systems—and particularly the mechanics of how different processes work—rather than the focus on objectives and perspectives highlighted in the role-playing games.

While the specific tools used to present mechanisms can range from board and counter to cards to computer systems, these games share a focus on set structure. In contrast to the relatively simple products of a mini- or role-playing game, development of these games is far more involved because of the need to build and test more substantial rules.

Given the substantial cost of development, an attractive approach to this kind of game is to leverage already constructed tools designed to support policymaking, like RAND’s recently published Hedgemony game. However, such transfers from policy spaces to educational ones are not always possible. For one thing, design work is required to translate a game designed for different audiences—for example the Hedgemony team undertook a separate effort to translate the product designed for policy audiences into a tool for educational groups. Because of the effort required, there are relatively few games of this type readily available to instructors. Another option is to leverage commercial games in the classroom. For example, the U.S. Army Command and Staff College has successfully used curated games, with a particular focus on games depicting historical battles. Unlike converted policy games, commercial games are easily available for purchase, and have been designed for independent play from the start, which can make entry costs for both faculty and students lower. On the other hand, because these games were originally designed for entertainment first, an educator needs to be careful that the game system is a reasonable model of the key systems under study, or risk teaching the wrong lessons. As a result, it may be difficult for instructors to find structured games that are a good fit for their curriculum.

When such games are available, they are a powerful tool for application and synthesis. However, careful thought is need about how they are incorporated into the classroom. For one thing, the mechanism that provide the game its structure can also be confusing to students. In particular, instructors who are very familiar with commercial game mechanics may underestimate the difficulty a student may have in understanding these tools. As a result, considerable time may be required to learn how to play the game, making for a very direct trade-off with covering other material. Alternatively, an instructor may opt to facilitate more of the game, as is often done for policy audiences. This can lower the burden on students but increases the burden on instructors. Additionally, to the extent that the abstractions made in the game rules cut against principles being taught, careful discussion is needed to ensure that potential misconceptions are corrected.

Series of games to foster Innovation in the Force

Last, but perhaps most influential in the perception of the value of games are claims that games played for professional military education can drive innovation in the force; not just by improving the thinking of the players, but also by generating the ideas that will sustain the future force. In U.S. contexts, advocates for gaming point to the games played at the U.S. Naval War College between the first and second World Wars, and their influence on the development of tactics that would dominate the Pacific theater in World War II. The appeal of the model is clear—it holds out the promise that games played to educate officers can also feed into the planning and concepts development tasks of the military, killing two birds with one stone. Modern incarnations of the model, like the Naval War College’s Halsey Alfa Group, continue to produce influential analysis for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Looking across these examples, what is clear is that the innovation comes not from running a game once, but from running it many times with different valuations in the scenario setup, roles, and rules. This is not the work of a single class session, or even a single year of student time, but rather years (and in the cases cited above, decades) of work by a team of researchers who structured the evolution of the game across groups of students, including analysis, research, and communication with policy stakeholders between iterations of the game. In effect, from the perspective of the students, such efforts may look like the role playing or structured games described above. It is only from the faculty view that evaluation across games can really be done to identify and stress test innovative ideas. This work requires a standing staff, with considerable time to conduct research outside of classroom responsibilities—thus representing a substantial investment at the institutional level.

In Conclusion: Building games into the curriculum

Looking across these types of games and their requirements and benefits, it becomes clear that we need a tailored approach to incorporating games into the curriculum. Mini-games can be helpful in foundational course work, and provide an easier point of entry. While role-playing and structured games can provide access to more advanced learning objectives, they also can require considerably more effort if they are going to properly support learning objectives. These games may require more time to either build or identify an appropriate tool. They also may require more thoughtful integration to ensure students are able to fully participate and learn the right lessons. However, to really harness the potential of games to foster innovation, a far greater commitment may be needed to sustain gaming over the years needed to explore a problem space and develop and stress-test new ideas.

Elizabeth M. Bartels is the codirector of the Center for Gaming and an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


Ananda Gupta

Ananda Gupta – Principal Game Designer at Riot Games

Part I: Designing the Cold War Experience

When Jason Matthews and I set out to design a game, we didn’t initially anticipate the Cold War as our subject matter. But when we looked at the offerings already out there (in 2001), the Cold War games were few and far between. They were either symmetric geopolitics games like Supremacy and The Cold War, which strove to provide a balanced multiplayer experience at the expense of historical context and detail, or treatments of World War III like The Third World War or Bruce Costello’s Dropshot series. No one had yet created a global game covering the mostly-bipolar rivalry between the US and USSR.

We were both pretty new at game design back then, so we weren’t all that systematic about how to tackle the design problem. Mostly we wanted to create a game that was simpler and faster to play than the other games using the card-driven game system, which Mark Herman created in 1993 with We the People, a game about the American Revolution. We the People was an elegant and streamlined design. What made the system clever was, among other things, how many situation-specific game rules were placed on cards rather than in the main rulebook; this reduced the up-front investment in rules learning and also centered the rules most relevant to a player’s immediate situation right in front of them. But many of We the People’s successors made use of this innovation to add more rules weight to the rulebook in addition to what went on the cards, and Jason and I thought that trend needed some counter-weight.

Starting from there, Twilight Struggle found its path. It’s a 2-player game, with one player as the United States and the other as the Soviet Union, starting right after the end of World War II and ending in 1989, when the Berlin Wall historically came down. The players receive a hand of cards that they can use for Operations - which can place political influence on the map, or attempt Coups to strike at countries with opposing influence - or Events, which model specific historical events in the era. The object of the game is to score victory points, which come from outcompeting one’s opponent in the right regions at the right times, managing one’s own domestic political pressures, and clever play of Events. Other systems capture the space race, which can reward its leader with special capabilities and victory points, and the ever-present threat of nuclear war.

At the start of the design process, we had several specific elements of the Cold War’s strategic experience that we wanted to capture in the game. They were:

  1. The domino theory;
  2. Political pressure to act;
  3. Shared strategic priorities with uncertainty.

The domino theory - that a country’s own political realignment can drive a similar realignment among its neighbors, and generate momentum that will be much harder to resist later than earlier - was widely accepted during the Cold War. Today, international relations theorists don’t put much stock in its explanatory value of 20th century events. This brings us to a crucial point for military professionals who engage with games: games often enshrine incorrect or implausible dynamics in their rules, because otherwise hindsight will reduce, rather than enhance, the players’ understanding of the problems their historical counterparts faced. In Twilight Struggle, therefore, even though the domino theory may not have been an accurate-in-fact model of regional politics, it’s in the game because allowing players to ignore it would provide an unrealistic understanding of the real constraints decision-makers faced at the time.

This also shows up in Twilight Struggle’s military operations rule, which punishes players if they allow their opponent to expend more military operations (coups and war-related events) than they do. It represents domestic political pressure on political and military decision-makers to take action against the opposing superpower. An important part of evoking the Cold War era is this feeling of incomplete agency; of being able to generate pressure on one’s opponent, but also facing pressure from the game itself.

This incomplete agency extends to winning the game as well. All competitive games must measure victory somehow; like many others, Twilight Struggle uses victory points. Early versions of Twilight Struggle used a heads-up scoring system, where regions would be predictably scored each turn and players could plan around the timing of regional scoring, and also account for the shifting value of each region as the game went on. But this did not adequately capture the Cold War mentality, where sometimes the main reason for extending influence or conducting operations in a region was merely that the opposing superpower was doing so. Concealing the scoring in players’ hands as cards therefore fulfilled a dual purpose: players who drew scoring cards would have less operational firepower at their disposal, since scoring cards have no Ops value, but confer foreknowledge on their holder that, and when, the region will be scored. Regional and battleground victory points remain something of an artificial construct, but it was one we were willing to live with; a system that allowed more variation in which countries are Battlegrounds (granting points every time a scoring card comes up for their region) might have led to an even more strategically fluid situation, but with a Cold War that looked a lot less like the actual one.

There was one element that came into the game during the design phase without our intending it:

  1. Crisis management

The feeling of paranoia and impending disaster that in many ways defines what it feels like to play Twilight Struggle came about almost entirely by accident. The game was well into development when we confronted a problem: not enough cards were being played as Events each turn. So we searched for reasons to reward Event play more… but ultimately, the carrot approach floundered, since just pushing more power into Events would simply make them more important than board position. We hit upon the idea of triggering opposing events when they are played for Operations, and it took less than one test game for us to realize that was the right approach. Now, not only did many more Events occur, but players faced a fascinating dilemma with each hand of cards they picked up - how to make the best use of their own Events and play around their opponent’s. Beginners often feel overwhelmed by the problem they have to solve, less aware than experts that their opponents usually feel the same way - and this, we felt, also captured the emotional essence of the Cold War. Leaders are often much more aware of their own problems than their rivals’, and sometimes act overly conservatively in response.

Part II: Playing Games Critically

Examples from history make everything clear, and furnish the best description of proof in the empirical sciences. This applies with more force to the Art of War than to any other.

Carl von Clausewitz, “On War”

Most people who play wargames and historical games play them for fun, and generally, that’s the purpose we design them to. And many professional military personnel enjoy them as well - as evidenced by the birthday party held for the United States Marine Corps each year at the San Diego Historical Games Convention every November. But players at the start of their military careers, who seek to make life-and-death decisions and hope to understand how others made those decisions under similar circumstances in the past, have to approach games with a different lens.

Earlier, I alluded to game rules that impose historical context on the players, to correct for their hindsight bias. In Mark Herman’s For the People, fortresses grant a simple +2 defensive modifier in combat, and furthermore there are no differing levels of fortification: a space is either fortified or not, and that’s that. This is ahistorical: Washington DC was the most heavily fortified location in the western hemisphere during the American Civil War, given its location so close to the border between Union-controlled Maryland and Confederate-controlled Virginia. Why, then, did Herman design the game that way?

In interviews, Herman has said that the reason is simple: if Washington had a historical level of fortification in the game, the Union player would feel safe about its defense, in a way his or her historical counterparts simply did not. The Union leadership consistently overestimated the Confederacy’s capability to assault Washington, and devoted significant men and materiel to safeguarding it, even though a smaller commitment would probably have let them hold it against any realistic Confederate attack. But a player of For the People unfamiliar with the historical record might conclude, incorrectly, that fortification in the American Civil War had a marginal effect in battle and that the Union decision to fortify so strongly (as opposed to garrisoning in such numbers) was a mistake. This happens because games, unlike books, are designed to induce a deep empathy with the decision-makers involved, such that their decisions seem plausible, even when history suggests they were wrong. This is also why some players can comfortably read about Nazi Germany’s campaigns, but don’t feel good about stepping into the shoes of von Manstein or Rommel.

Games can also distort reality just to make the game more playable. The COIN (COunter-INsurgency) series of games from GMT has exploded in popularity, since it has introduced players to a variety of conflicts rarely or never before gamed. Volko Ruhnke, the creator of the COIN system, lamented in the Andean Abyss designer’s notes that 90% of wargames cover 10% of actual war; the countless titles about the Bulge, Gettysburg, and Waterloo belie the ways in which the vast majority of violent human conflict has occurred.

Andean Abyss, set in the mid-90s, invites the players into the roles of the Colombian government, FARC, right-wing insurgents, and the drug cartels. Guerrilla units must be spotted before they can be engaged, and that almost always leaves them a time window to disappear again if they don’t want to fight. As the government builds its capabilities, it can gradually acquire the ability to shrink or eliminate these windows, and mount effective, if expensive, counter-insurgency operations. Games in the series now cover conflicts as diverse as Caesar’s campaign in Gaul to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Yet every COIN game makes a massive simplifying assumption: guerrilla presence is known with perfect accuracy. In a COIN game, if an area is free of guerrillas, all the players know with certainty that there are, in fact, none there. This makes the games playable, since no system is needed to track hidden movement and deployment. That’s not to say nothing can be gained from playing games that make this type of tradeoff! But a military officer seeking to learn about counterinsurgency strategies would do well to remember that this is an example of games’ primary purpose as entertainment taking precedence over replication of the actual conditions decision-makers faced.

Therefore, to return to the spirit of the Clausewitz quote at the start of this section, games and historical records both serve as “examples of history”, but they have different goals for those who engage with them. Books and case studies seek to present history so that the reader can understand and assess the facts of what happened; games sometimes intentionally obscure what actually happened so that players can experience it as the participants did - and the participants usually had a thoroughly incomplete picture of what was actually happening. Training, then, should incorporate both: games, for practice at decision-making under uncertainty and to develop empathy with the people who had to make hard decisions in real life, in the hopes of doing better next time it counts; and traditional history, to understand the limits of that empathy’s usefulness and to see the whole picture as we know it.

Ananda Gupta is a Principal Game Designer at Riot Games. He has worked in the game industry since 2003, and won the James Dunnigan Award for game design in 2005. His most recent digital game work is on Riot's "League of Legends: Teamfight Tactics", and his most recent board game is "Imperial Struggle" (GMT Games, 2020). He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California, USA. LinkedIn profile:


Lieutenant Commander Scott West Money

Before The Forge, there was the Forge. Founded in April 2001 and closing in 2012, the Forge was a community of 4,476 users making 266,041 posts about designing, publishing, and playing new and innovative role playing games (RPGs) (White 2020). Both sites aimed to develop the intellectual basis of their communities through quality user-generated content, and the lessons from RPGs can directly contribute to enhancing the intellectual edge for the profession of arms.


  • A game is an interactive structure, with a meaning derived internally, that requires players to struggle towards a goal (Costikyan 2002).
  • A wargame is a scenario-based warfare model in which the outcome and sequence of events affect, and are affected by, the decisions made by the players. At the core, a wargame is the players, their decisions, the narrative created, their shared experiences and lessons taken away (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre 2017).
  • An RPG is unique, in that the medium of the activity is communication (usually talking), each player is a performer and audience, resulting in a shared narrative mediated by rules resulting in a predictable range of experiences ideally in line with the goal of the designer (N. D. Paoletta 2019).
  • A Larp (or LARP, ‘Live Action Role Play’) is an RPG where the medium is expanded from talking to actual physical performance or an agreed substitute, and the shared narrative includes significant physical representations like locations and props (Vanek 2009).

As an example, if you wanted to play a game related to Battlestar Galactica:

  • A wargame would use model Colonial Vipers and Cylon Raiders, moving on a board or a computer screen, to simulate a battle.
  • An RPG would let you play a Viper pilot like Apollo, Starbuck, or even Boomer, focusing on the personal stresses of wartime service in the Colonial Navy.
  • A Larp would be like game Project Exodus, funded with money from the German government, where 80 players on board a decommissioned destroyer for five days will act as various characters exploring issues of freedom, safety and humanitarianism (Robertson 2015).

Not the only game in town

Tabletop RPGs first started as an offshoot of hobbyist miniature wargames in 1974 with the fantasy-themed game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ (D&D) by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). TSR initially marketed D&D as ‘Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures’. D&D’s significant innovation from wargames was the focus on individual characters as opposed to formations, and the continual playing of the same character over multiple sessions of play instead of a one session game (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '70s 2014).

By 1991 with the release of ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ by White Wolf Studios, RPGs had ventured from combat and exploration into focusing on story, politics, machinations, and internal conflict (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '90s 2014). While Steve Jackson Games published the first mass-market Larp ‘Killer’ in 1981 (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '80s 2014), White Wolf would transition Larp from isolated communities to the broader audience with ‘Mind’s Eye Theatre: The Masquerade’ in 1993 (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '90s 2014).

Also in 1993, Steffan O’Sullivan published the first Open Source game called ‘FUDGE’, a toolkit style game that could be adapted as needed (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '90s 2014). By 2000, D&D released its mechanics as Open Source. This democratisation of game publishing, increasing focus on narrative/story, combined with the low barriers to entry, helped the ‘indie’ design trend flourish primarily focusing on tight game design dealing with serious and particular subject matters (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '00s 2014).

D&D continues to dominate the RPG scene, with an estimated customer base of over 40 million people since 1974 and significant future growth expected (Whitten 2020). A leading online RPG service lists D&D games representing 59% of all games played (Roll20 2020). This level of success that D&D enjoys approaches the problem of genericised trademark, in that the brand becomes so popular that the brand becomes synonymous with the broader product (i.e. Hoover, Band-Aid, and Bobcat). Some professional wargamers have fallen into this trap, dismissing RPGs for use in tackling ‘serious’ problems (Brynen 2014). With a broader appreciation for the field, RPGs can powerfully develop narratives useful for analysis.

For example, the multi-award-winning game ‘Fate Core’ utilises a fractal concept to allow the same five mechanics that represent characters, to simply model anything else (Balsera, et al. 2013). This fractal concept is exampled most notably in ‘Fight Fire’, where the players are firefighters but the fire itself has characterisation mechanics to reflect its importance to the game. Fires are divided into types like open fire, void fire, and smouldering fires. Fires have characteristics to represent the ability to spread, burn, and generate smoke. The resultant smoke is modelled in its ability to choke and disorient (Morningstar and Balsera, Fight Fire 2013). ‘Fight Fire’ is an example of the game system being elegantly used to represent wide ranges of shared narratives.

Strengths against wargames

Matrix games,1 and especially Seminar games, have the problem of devolving into convergent thinking and conventional outcomes. Matrix games preferentially value expertise and seminar games by design value consensus. These issues are so prevalent that the term BOGSAT or ‘Bunch of guys sat around a table’ has entered into UK doctrine (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre 2017). These wargames fail to take advantage of the concepts of fortune and distribution of authority (N. D. Paoletta 2019) found in more innovative RPG design. Again to use Fate Core as an example, there are four degrees of success within the mechanics, being failure, tie, succeed and succeed with style. Tweaks can mean that failure is changed to succeed at a serious cost, and ties are changed to succeed at a minor cost. Through negotiation with other players, authority for the shared narrative is distributed according to how much a player is willing to invest in an outcome moderated by the results of fortune (Balsera, et al. 2013). This distribution of authority leads to divergent possibilities in thinking and narrative well beyond Seminar games, and emergent scenarios beyond those provided by a simple binary result from Matrix games.

Game of war

The first major successful military-themed RPG was the post-apocalyptic ‘Twilight:2000’ published by Game Designer’s Workshop in 1984. There were many other releases in the 1980s, but by the 1990s military-themed RPGs largely disappeared from the marketplace. A notable exception was ‘GURPS’ by Steve Jackson Games published in 1986 and was the first successful RPG line designed to be flexible enough to be adapted to any thematic setting (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '80s 2014). GURPS published sourcebooks for law enforcement, espionage, religion, Russia, China, Special Ops and computer intrusion (GURPS: Cyberpunk). The last two are noteworthy, as GURPS: Cyberpunk was close enough to reality that it became infamous as ‘the book that was seized by the Secret Service’ (Blankenship 1990).

On 1st March 1990, the US Secret Service executed a warrant on Steve Jackson Games as part of its computer security mandate. A university student arrested in 1989 had part of the plans for computer intrusion attempts intermingled with his GURPS: Special Ops campaign notes. An associate of the university student was the lead author of GURPS: Cyberpunk. After the Secret Service raided the author’s house, they proceeded to Steve Jackson Games offices’ and seized the manuscript of GURPS: Cyberpunk as ‘a handbook for computer crime’. Steve Jackson Games successfully sued in 1993, discovering the seizure was opportunistic (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '80s 2014).

Relying upon the growth of the indie RPG movement described earlier, many more games have been released that deal with military themes and scenarios. A selection is in Figure 1 below.

Selected military-themed commercial RPGs
Figure 1: Selected military-themed commercial RPGs

Stepping into their shoes

RPGs through characterisation can internalise powerful lessons about real-world situations. A noteworthy example is Winterhorn, which is a Larp ‘about how governments degrade and destroy activist groups. By playing law enforcement and intelligence operatives working diligently to demoralise and derail, you’ll learn about the techniques used in the real world in pursuit of these goals’ (Morningstar, Winterhorn 2017). Winterhorn is a game designed by one of the best in the field. Morningstar has won what some consider ‘the most prestigious’ award in gaming, the ‘Diana Jones Award’ for excellence in gaming (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '00s 2014). He’s also the only designer to personally win the prize twice since 2001 (The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming n.d.).

Morningstar describes his motivation behind the game stemming from his fear regarding current American politics. While superficially modelled on Stasi or the COINTELPRO, he states he was more influenced by the FBI and Chicago Police in the late 60s. The players play the ‘bad guys’ or analytical agents of government security services, and a secondary design intention is to endear understanding and even empathy towards government works from an activist audience (Sheldon 2017).

RPGS and developing the intellectual edge

The ADF would be strongly advised to explore how RPGs can enhance our intellect edge. The value of RPGs are well proven and used in industries such as in business, education, military training, improvisational theatre, drama therapy, health care and entertainment. RPGs provide three fundamental benefits (Bowman 2010):

  1. Enhancing a sense of communal cohesiveness by narrative enactment within a ritual framework.
  2. Encouraging complex problem-solving and providing participants opportunities to learn an extensive array of skills (see Figure 2 for a small sample) through the enactment of scenarios.
  3. Safety to enact alternate personas through identity alteration.
Figure 2: Leadership lessons you can learn from roleplaying games - Chan 2018
Figure 2: Leadership lessons you can learn from roleplaying games (Chan 2018)

RPGs foster community. Within the military, ‘ADF Delta Two Zero’ is an association promoting RPGs as a ‘way to stimulate learning and aptitude in…literary aptitude, mathematics, problem-solving, risk analysis and teamwork’ (ADFD20 2019). RPGs can teach, safely, about the consequences of actions on other people and populations through the exploration of identity lenses like ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. For the military, when interactions with foreign nationals can have profound consequences (Bowman 2010), the low cost of designing and running RPGs can have immeasurable benefit.

Through the characterisation process within RPGs, military players can, with some relative safety, explore their own levels self-awareness and practice social interactions that might be new or difficult for them. Through a deliberate process of characterisation using the typologies modelled in Figure 3 below, military players can explore decision-making frameworks in fictional scenarios.

Typology of RPG characters as a relationship of identity between the player and character
Figure 3: Typology of RPG characters as a relationship of identity between the player and character (Bowman 2010)

For example, through the Doppelganger Self, military players can explore how they might make decisions under increased pressures of combat. Arguably our entire exercise doctrine utilises this practice. Through the Experimental Self, leaders may be able to understand the decision making of other individuals, to better to influence these targets more effectively. Through controlled use of the Taboo Self, we might be able to explore the contributing factors leading to unacceptable or criminal behaviours to reduce them.


RPGs, through the process of characterisation, provide safe opportunities to learn complex skills, develop internal & external cohesion, and explore shared narratives. While D&D is prominent, award-winning games like Winterhorn demonstrate the breadth of the medium and its applicability in topical issues. Military subject matter is well supported in RPGs, and through looking at the broader practice of RPG design, innovations can improve how the ADF examines future scenarios while concurrently developing its people. Through leveraging existing RPG groups like ADFD20, the ADF could explore how best RPGs can safely, and with minimal cost, contribute to developing the intellectual edge of its people.


Before LCDR Sean WEST MONEY joined the RAN in 2003, he started playing RPGs in 1997 with ‘Star Wars 2nd Edition: Revised and Expanded’. He married his wife in uniform but met her at an RPG convention. Before taking command as OC Joint Military Police Station, years prior he was a leader of a National Larp not-for-profit association. As an MP and qualified investigator, he is surrounded by questions, but the one he loves the most is ‘do you want to play with me’ from his two boys. His Twitter handle @ratmonkey181 continues the dichotomy between military and RPG scenes

Editors note

1 Note inserted by Editor - Definition of Matrix Game: ‘Matrix games are a form of structured seminar war game. Players propose an ACTION that leads to a RESULT that is supported by a number of REASONS that either enable the action and/ or provide a link between the ACTION and RESULT. The argument is the adjudicated (by a variety of means appropriate to the type of scenario) and the situation is updated to reflect the result. Previous RESULTS can be used as REASONS in subsequent arguments and this allows back tracing to analyse which arguments had the greatest influence on the outcome. From


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Currently there is more time and people involved in playing than ever before, but is wargaming the best use of resources? Wargaming practices are both common and obscure, professional and hobby, allied and national. It has become a common methodology in many institutions of our times: analytical, educational, and academic. Despite its military origins, wargaming has been successfully used in business and innovation applications. There are many recorded benefits, serious risks and possible obstacles related to introduction of wargaming into an organization. At its best, it can be an instrument of improvement and a way to select the prime. At its worst it can promote false priorities and disrupt critical thinking. The difference between best and worst depends on engagement, purpose and experience. The following account summarizes the lessons identified in Wargaming Experiences: Soldiers, Scientists and Civilians book, describing the NATO Wargaming, Modelling and Simulation project. It renders the way of introducing wargaming and making the time to play for what is the most demanding, urgent and engaging.

Difficulty of Engagement

At the point of introducing a new method, wargaming is the equivalent of going the extra mile. It develops as an additional capability that can help in testing concepts, training tactics and connecting units. It starts as a complementary option to other solutions. Before it can become a self-standing capability, it will pull on all the existing ones in search for available personnel, time and resources. This is the moment of test and will determine whether wargaming can realize its best or slowly degenerate to the point of being meaningless. Engagement can’t be guaranteed, but it can be motivated by:

  • Leadership – if the Commander validates wargaming and attaches value to its results, it becomes important to the participants to play their strongest game;
  • Dedicated assignment – if the Teams are not driven away from their normal tasks, but wargaming is the task;
  • Take-away – if the wargame and its conclusions are applicable and visibly improve the participants performance.

Engagement can be anchored by purpose – the higher the stakes, the less probable it is that people will walk away from the table. Purpose turns the random activity of wargaming into a directed effort.

Clarity of Purpose

Wargaming is experimental in its nature. It lies at the intersection of problem definition, search of relevant data and simulation of possible scenarios. This vast generality of possible applications needs to be precise to deliver tangible outcomes for the organization. Among many purposes, the most prominent ones include:

  • Training – simulating scenarios requiring a particular set of skills that can be trained in the game;
  • Testing concepts – replicating reality and testing the effect of proposed concepts;
  • Red-teaming – providing an enemy that attempts to disrupt or destroy existing systems;
  • Decision support – offering information that is calculated based on the wargame;
  • Strategy generation – brainstorming strategies for future or current problems;
  • Campaign planning – building or testing plans in place for future campaigns;
  • Networking – connecting individuals from diverse positions and backgrounds.

Those purposes can guide the experience of participants of wargames: in simple terms, it is known what will be the main achievement. If the engagement is ensured and the purpose clear, the value of wargaming experience can be proven in practice.

Value of Experience

Wargaming at its best provides a sample of problems that can arrive and prevent being ambushed by its novelty. There are several ways of designing experiential games that bring forward meaningful decisions to be made:

  • Drawing from previous experience – designing based on relevant problems that occurred to others;
  • Searching for missing competences – interviewing staff and commanders in search for deficiencies;
  • Identifying critical dependencies – looking into the most consequential failures and recognizing prevention measures;
  • Proposing alternatives – demonstrating potential scenarios that require new approaches.

Experience that is valuable leaves a notion: of awareness, skill or solution. It can be a closed loop from a problem to its conclusion or an opened question that is not answered yet. Either way it gives a chance of trying without suffering the cost of failure. Most of the time spent playing is devoted to losing. Yet, it draws people into improvement, not surrender. Wargaming experience geared towards a purpose and backed with engagement turns into an effective method of turning play into profession.

Wargaming in NATO holds many lessons – on the difficulty of engagement, on the need for clarity of purpose and the value of experience. Wargaming introduces the practice of challenges, competitions and coordination among units. It can turn into a decisive advantage if is used the right way: dedicated to the meaningful decisions that have to be made.

In the end, taking the time to play wargames can provide a collective upgrade: in engagement of individuals, precision of purpose and the value of experience. I have rarely been reminded of a briefing or a lecture as much as I have been greeted by: “I remember the last wargame, where I played the red team and disabled the railroad…”. If the experience is valuable enough to retain and revisit, wargaming is worthy to take the time to play.