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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


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