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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 5 of 10]

[Editor’s Note: The following is Jeffrey Webb’s noteworthy college thesis from 2015, written during his time at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, to be reprinted here in its entirety, in ten parts, with the author’s permission, for your reading enjoyment. Footnotes have been extracted from this presentation of Jeffrey Webb’s writings, to enhance this casual reading experience, but we’ll gladly share footnotes with anyone who is interested in seeing the sources and such.]


Written by Jeffrey Webb

Chapter 5: Wargaming and the World Wars

With wargaming firmly established in many of the militaries involved in the First and Second World Wars, it is not difficult to find examples of precisely how the outcome of history was directed by games themselves. This is not to say simply that the games gave certain militaries the keys to victory or the warnings of impending defeat. Both did occur. Just as often, however, were results that gave military planners the illusion of those indications, influencing plans and orders to disastrous effect. To understand how this occurs it is important to understand three variables involved in the scenarios that will be cited.

First, while the games make every attempt to model reality and do become more and more reflective of reality as they are refined over time— no game can be 100% accurate. Taking examples from the development of wargames to this point, the tables constructed by the Germans for Kriegspiel were found to be lacking by Livermore and adjusted to reflect reality more closely. Any game based on Livermore’s tables was much more likely to successfully model reality than any game based on the earlier tables. Each conflict that occurred in the modern era provided more and more hard data on casualty rates, wounds, number of rounds fired versus actual casualties and the like.

As time when on, so too did games become more reflective of reality – save when they were not. Freak outside cases, or cases the authors of the games did not foresee, did not exist in game rules. These were therefore unaccounted for by the games. New technologies that had not been employed in actual combat could only be guessed at – gas, modern breech-loading heavy artillery pre-1914, aircraft and the primitive armor of World War I were all variables wargames leading up to The Great War simply could not model in any accuracy. Effective prediction was not possible until they were actually used, and their use recorded and effects analyzed.

The second factor to have an effect on the reliability of the games as written was the accuracy of the behavior of the opposing force. The game mechanics could be as accurate as possible, and yet if the Red Force was played in a way completely contrary to how the army being represented by the Red Force would act in reality— the outcome of the game would be invalid. This required a knowledge of the enemy and their strategic and tactical doctrines. Hand in hand with this is the political model— as the Germans discovered to their dismay in World War I. Since politics and the reactions of states and their leaders are variables that are impossible to reduce to mathematical formulae, modeling the reaction of a state when hostilities erupt around it can be much harder than guessing the probable casualties caused by a company of riflemen.

The final factor in the accuracy of the games is the wishes and expectations of the players, referees and officers sponsoring the games. The comedy film “Down Periscope” provides a fictional example of this phenomenon. An admiral overseeing a war game makes changes to the parameters of the game to stack the deck against the film’s protagonist. This change was made in order to force the game to conclude as that admiral had predicted. No matter what the result of such a game, the final outcome must be questioned when the assumptions of the game have been changed from their base values to one favoring one side or the other. This sort of willful stacking of the deck creates games likely to produce a favored result— but not a realistic one.

Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913) is an excellent example of a commander who used wargaming as a planning and training tool. Like the earlier Moltke the Elder, Schlieffen saw a combination of wargames and staff rides as more than just planning and training— they were rehearsals for the European war that was expected to occur. During his 1891-1906 tenure as Chief of the Great General Staff, Schlieffen executed thirty-one staff rides to the borders of Germany, sixteen west and fifteen east. Schlieffen worked his officers hard, putting them into the scenario of a two-front war with France to the west and Russia to the east.

As plans were developed for this anticipated war, Schlieffen made sure the staff rides and wargames reflected and tested those plans. The constant wargames made every general staff officer intimately familiar with not only their specific parts of the war plan, but the overall commander’s intent and a sense of the general approach to the war that Schlieffen had in mind. When issues with the plans were found, Schlieffen conducted follow-up games to fix perceived weaknesses in the war plan. Interestingly, Schlieffen had his officers game these tactical problems from the perspective of the enemy force. Militarily, the plans were sound, and as accurate as the games of the day could make them. The end result of the games was most often a defeat of the French. The plan looked solid. It was further developed and improved by Schlieffen’s successor, General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (1848-1916).

Moltke ran many more games and staff rides and used the experiences to find problems in the original Schlieffen plans. The games revealed that ammunition problems would likely plague the German right flank, thus motor ammunition battalions were raised to offset the problem. This was a new innovation not yet present in any other military. The mistake originally made by Schlieffen and perpetuated by Moltke the Younger was one that would be Germany’s undoing— they failed to adequately address the political and civilian reactions to German military activities. The fierce resistance of the Belgians took Germany by surprise, as did the destruction of railroads and other infrastructure the Germans had planned on using.  This slowed the rate of German troop movements and caused reality to diverge from the predictions of the wargames.

What went wrong? Some British authorities chalked it up to “lack of imagination” and a German propensity to game opponents as if they were themselves the German Army. The Germans portraying the opposition tended to react with the tactical and strategic preferences to which they were accustomed. The British also blamed the referees in the more free German wargames, and a form of mental rigidity caused by the more rule-heavy kreigspiels being run. Despite all the gaming leading the Germans to make actual troop deployments and maneuvers that failed to produce the expected results of the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans continued to use wargaming to plan their activities. The final August offensive of 1918 was famously gamed by the Germans, with their game finally giving them a very realistic answer to their strategic problem- that is, that there was very little chance of decisive victory.

Dr. Terence Zuber has argued that the infamous Schlieffen Plan was not the culprit of the German defeat at all. His evidence has been debated in journals and publications, but one fact can be inferred from his work that supports the idea that wargames have had a tangible and direct effect on military outcomes. His opposition to the “common knowledge” that the Schlieffen Plan was the blueprint for German operations in The Great War is based on the results of wargames— both Schlieffen’s and Moltke the Younger’s. His work is based on the recovery of wargames and war plans from alternate archival sites in Germany. Zuber maintains that the vaunted Schlieffen Plan was not a full war plan at all, but a “Denkschrift,” or study, that contained Schlieffen’s general ideas on a European War. The Denkschrift relies on divisions that did not exist as of its creation in 1906 and assumes a one-front war against France. Zuber’s research suggests that there are at least two possibilities for the failure of the German war plans. The first assertion was made by German officers such as General Hermann von Kuhl and General Wilhelm Groener who thought Moltke the Younger had failed to understand the operational concept of Schlieffen’s plan. They felt Moltke had strengthened the wrong flank of the Army, thereby causing an otherwise sound plan to fail. The second possibility for the German failure was summed up by Gerhard Ritter upon studying copies of Schlieffen’s papers that were in US hands after World War II. Ritter’s analysis of the Schlieffen Plan was that it was extremely risky, incapable of adaptation to unexpected circumstances, and held little real chance of success. The fatal flaw was in the plan being “purely military” in nature and did not taking into account the grave political fallout of violating Belgian neutrality. The game had been played in such a way as to ignore important political variables while demonstrating German military supremacy.

In the Second World War, Japan may have made different mistakes than Germany in their employment of wargames to plan their strategy in the Pacific. The Japanese had been influenced by translations of Meckel and Verdy’s work, and quickly incorporated their ideas into the Japanese War College’s curriculum. According to Naval War College author Francis J. McHugh “…the successes of the Japanese Army in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 were attributed in part to ‘lessons learned’ by Japanese officers in war games.” McHugh goes on to report that the 1940 establishment of the Total War Research Institute was done to determine “Japan’s future course of action with the aid of analytical gaming.” An interesting twist in the Japanese games that was missing in many of the German simulations of World War One was the inclusion of political as well as military matters in the game. Not only were potential allied and enemy nations portrayed by players, but factions within the Japanese military and government were modeled as well. McHugh wrote “These games resulted in detailed military and economic plans that were actually put into effect on December 8, 1941.”

Military-political wargames had become the one of the chief planning tools of the Total War Research Institute. The goal of the Institute was to explore every option and possibility, including the increasingly likely circumstance of war with the United States. It was wargaming that in the fall of 1941 that convinced the Japanese leadership of the possible effectiveness of a strike at Pearl Harbor. Subsequent wargaming set the Japanese plans for 1942.  The 1942 Midway campaign is where the Japanese conduct of wargames began to see issues and inaccuracies occur.

During the wargaming to plan the Midway campaign a situation arose that demonstrated one of the major weaknesses of relying on wargaming as a predictor of likely outcomes.   In the Midway wargame, the carrier aircraft from the Japanese force sortied to attack Midway and the United States fleet. At the same time, land-based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese forces. As with other wargames in the model of rigid Kriegspiel, the probable outcomes of various units versus other units were distilled into tables and charts, and dice used to represent random chance and the fortunes of war. In the case of the Midway game, a group of American bombers engaged the Japanese fleet and scored nine hits on the Japanese carrier force, sinking Akagi and Kaga in the process. This was significantly unusual because the bombers being modeled were flying level, rather than the more accurate and dangerous dive-bombers. Statistically, the level bombers should not have inflicted such heavy damage on the carrier force— the dice had just been “hot” for the umpire, Lieutenant Commander Okumiya. This was an outcome that was not likely, and rather than continue the game with such a freak occurrence having hobbled the Japanese force, the event was considered unrealistic.

At this point, Rear Admiral Ugaki, the officer in charge of the games, stepped in and ruled this result as such an improbable occurrence that he overruled Okumiya and reinstated Akagi as only lightly damaged. Of this event Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya later wrote in their book Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan “No more vivid example of thoughtless and stupid arrogance can be conceived than the attitude which pervaded the war games in preparation for the Midway operation.” The Midway operation went ahead as planned with the Japanese expecting the outcome to be favorable as in their games. In subsequent game scenarios, Kaga even rose from the deep to rejoin the Japanese fleet, further invalidating the effect of American air power in the conjectural battle for Midway. The Japanese trusted their assessment of the situation and were satisfied with their game results.

The historical outcome of the actual Battle of Midway shows that the Japanese were both right and wrong in altering Okumiya’s ruling regarding carrier losses. Land-based aircraft from Midway had very little effect on the Japanese fleet as Rear Admiral Ugaki had insisted. Kaga an Akagi however were both sunk by American carrier-based aircraft that “had no role in the juggled game.” Naval War College author Robert C. Rubel wrote that he found no fault in Admiral Ugaki’s ruling. “In fact, however, the Japanese umpires were perfectly justified— a dice roll had given a highly improbable hit to level-flying bombers (that is, as opposed to dive-bombers), which had proved generally ineffective in attacking ships. They were properly attempting to prevent a capabilities game from becoming a dice game.” Rubel argued that the real failure was in the absence of American carrier forces from the game. This factor could – and historically did – change the outcome of a battle for Midway completely.

While Rubel argued that it was not “victory disease” or the arrogance attributed by Fuchida and Okumiya to their superiors, he did admit that the failure to address American carrier forces was something the Japanese simply did not wish to deal with. “…at another point during the game it was asked what would happen if an American carrier task force ambushed Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s carrier force while it was raiding Midway, and that uncomfortable question seems to have been ignored.” The Japanese planners did not want to deal with a scenario in which they did not have the element of surprise. The presence of an American carrier task force would imply surprise had not been achieved, so the prospect was not introduced into the game. As Rubel wrote “…it would have negated their plans, and there was no time to start again from scratch.”

The Japanese defeat at Midway is considered by many, including officers that helped plan the battle, as the turning point in the Pacific War. Was the failure in the Japanese reliance on war games— on which they continued to rely throughout the rest of the war? Was the failure due to their “arrogance” and inability to accept game results that were unfavorable to the Japanese forces? Was the failure in stacking the games in the Japanese favor, so that the desired outcome would be the expected outcome? There is no doubt the Japanese relied on their wargames to create their battle plans, and those plans shaped the Pacific War until the destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s efficacy as a fighting force. The question is which wargaming sin led them to following flawed plans— or was the failure of their plans due to the fortunes of war and superior Allied leadership?

Both World Wars can be demonstrably shown to have been shaped at the strategic and theater level by wargames. The examples used in this chapter were carefully chosen as portraying the losing side in each war not to discredit the use of wargames as a planning and training tool, but to reinforce the concept that a wargame is only as good as its base assumptions. Questions exist in history whose answers may never be known— could the Schlieffen Plan have worked with the forces it called for? What if the Japanese accounted for the presence of the American carriers and altered their plans accordingly? Perhaps the only way to answer these questions would be to use the very tool that raises them to attempt to simulate a history that had never occurred – wargaming. This very thing has happened time and time again as hobbyists, authors and military personnel employ wargames to ask the question “What if?”

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  1. Christopher Bishop
    Christopher Bishop

    Truly interesting take. I know from my time in the military they have often tried to simulate outcomes based on logistic profiles, troop numbers and expected environmental factors, never really tied that to more traditional wargaming but it makes perfect sense. Very interesting read!

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