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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 10 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 10: Conclusions

Entire volumes can and have been written on the various stages of evolution of the wargame from chaturanga to Kriegspiel, the branch between modern wargames and roleplaying games and the introduction of computers to all forms of wargame. While some academic interest has existed in the professional wargaming field, only recently have authors begun to write serious works on how wargaming evolved into roleplaying. This is significant, since the kind of wargames practiced in academia, RAND and the Pentagon— even within the US military in the mental/emotional games for soldier welfare – bear more than a passing resemblance to the games that evolved from Gygax and Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons. To achieve an understanding of how wargames evolved into today’s training tools, volumes of apparently unrelated history full of orcs, cyborgs and twelve-meter tall BattleMechs are necessary. The civilian hobby both descended from and parented modern training simulations and games in the sort of temporal paradox that would be right at home in a Doctor Who roleplaying scenario.

The intent of this work was to attempt to untangle the threads of the story of wargaming from its genesis to the modern military and civilian applications as of the time of this writing and demonstrate how the hobby and discipline of wargaming has had tangible effect on the military history of the world. These effects are fascinatingly diverse, and run the gamut from direct to indirect and from private to head of state. The wargame has been a training tool, a diversion and a planning guide for over two centuries and its use has only increased and diversified in that time.

In some cases the effect might be a pebble in a pond: perhaps a soldier required to play the Single Parenting simulation had a better understanding of a fellow soldier’s plight and assisted that soldier to remain active in the Army. This result would hardly chart the course of nations, but would be personally significant to the soldiers involved and presents a factor in force retention for the Army. Other times the effect might be more like a boulder in a puddle, with Germany’s armies clashing according to a war plan they know will work from a decade of Kriegspiel exercises telling them so. In such a case, the resulting war includes the formation of alliances, the fall of governments and the redrawing of maps.

In a strange case of mass influence preceding individual influence, the narrative of wargame history shows that due to wargaming initially being a pastime for the nobility and the generals its initial historical impact showed itself to be on the level of the clashes of nations. Prussian, and later German military operations were based in overwhelming part on the outcome of their war games. Allies and enemies alike recognized this phenomenon, and wargaming became a fixture in many armies. Regardless of one’s view of Moltke the Younger’s interpretation of Schlieffen’s Kriegspiel­-tested deployment plan, it is clear that the plan itself and the games that led to its formation had a profound effect on German opening moves in the First World War. Logistical concerns were dealt with in the pre-war Kriegspiel exercises as well as matters of direct combat. The war had been gamed time and again, and the Germans had formulated their plan accordingly.

This reliance on games as predictors of the future proved to be of mixed value for both Germany and Japan in the Second World War. The Japanese games at times indicated unfavorable results that were unacceptable to the Japanese commanders, who dismissed them. History, in the case of Midway, proved to agree in an uncanny manner with the war game. Hitler’s failure to heed his own wargame results resulted in the disaster of Barbarossa, as Heinz Guderian played the Soviets and handed the German gamers a sound defeat. The message is clear— rely too much on games, and disaster is sure to follow. Ignore the outcome of games, and a similar fate will befall your military. As devotees of Fletcher Pratt would point out, some games have more realistic outcomes than others. The problem lies in knowing where to draw the line.  One US Air Force officer, General Lance W. Lord, offered congressional testimony in his capacity as the Commander, Air Force Space Command stating that wargames “are not completely predictive, but they are extremely insightful as we pit our space capabilities against capabilities an adversary may bring to bear.”

Following World War II, the development of political-military games and civilian think tanks like RAND started a shift in how wargames were used. In the Cold War era, the games were as much about politics and posturing as they were about actual combat. Many of the tabletop political simulation games were close to a mapless Dungeons & Dragons scenario, where players simply told the game coordinator their moves and intentions and the game coordinator decided the outcomes based on his own experience. The wargame had learned, too late for Germany in 1914, that the political and civilian aspects must be considered in any game simulating a nation at war. These factors became an important part of Cold War gaming, and wargames of the pol-mil type proliferated into academia about the same time that civilian wargaming was gaining ground with the general public. Cabinet secretaries, members of the Joint Chiefs, even figures like Henry Kissinger played the wargames that helped shape American policy. Even the Bay of Pigs was gamed out, and the plan was pronounced sound, and the go-ahead given. Could the planners of the Cuban invasion have learned a thing or two from their German or Japanese counterparts from the previous war?

Perhaps the most frightening of thoughts when considering what historical decisions have been predicated on wargames is the thought of what almost occurred. Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University tells the tale of ABLE ARCHER 83, the NATO wargame that in his opinion and that of Soviet double-agent Oleg Gordievsky nearly drove the Soviets to the point of launching nuclear arms against NATO. The wargame was played out across the European command, utilizing actual troop movements coordinated from actual command posts. The realism of the wargame ran afoul of the paranoid KGB’s OPERATION RYAN, a plan set forth by Yuri Andropov to find alleged Western plans for a nuclear first strike. The wargame operation looked so authentic that in the opinion of Gaddis and a few other authors 1983 was the closest the two superpowers had come to nuclear exchange since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Tightening the scope from war-winning (or losing) strategies derived from games, significant advances have been made in tactical doctrine based on games since World War II. The examples of improved antisubmarine performance thanks to wargames played by the US Navy and improved tactical cohesion by soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan show that wargaming has a tangible effect on military forces. This effect can be a new or altered combat doctrine, such as with the submarine example, or an increased ability to train existing doctrine with realistic combat trainers like VBS2. Even the mental health and well-being of troops are being addressed with wargames, though the results of those programs are more difficult to quantify in terms of success or failure.

It would be difficult to deny given the records that wargames in their many guises have had an effect on our military history. How differently would any number of conflicts have played out for better or worse given a lack of game-based planning on the part of nations? Would the Japanese have made their attack on Pearl Harbor had their games not told them the outcome would be favorable? Would the US color-coded war plans have been more or less effective had they not been gamed out to test strategic theories? Just as certain as wargames have had an effect, it can also be said with certainty that this effect has never been a consistently positive one. At times, the outcome of wargames can be prescient. At others, the outcome is disastrously misleading. In cases of each have militaries moved on the basis of game outcomes and the actual historical result has been just as mixed as the games themselves.

Wargaming will continue to shape policy for the United States into the twenty-first century at facilities like the National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASI).  CASI maintains the Congressman Owen Pickett Wargaming Center, at National Defense University’s Norfolk campus.  The center is named for a congressman who was instrumental in the recommendation that caused its authorization to be granted by Congress.  The report to the House of Representatives from the Panel on Military Education chaired by Ike Skelton (D-MO) stated “The Armed Forces Staff College should concentrate on case studies and war games on the combat employment of joint force, as did the Army-Navy Staff College in World War II.  The development of solutions to joint warfighting problems in a joint environment is the best way to teach joint perspective.”

For weal or woe, it is possible to open the pages of the works of Peter Perla, Matt Caffrey, and Thomas B. Allen and see how wargaming has been incorporated into US history. It is possible to read the writings of Schlieffen, Moltke the Elder and the Younger and Japanese aviators Genda and Fuchida and see how it all went right – and wrong. Like any tool, wargaming can be used and misused. Like any complex system, the output is only as good as the input and base assumptions. Taking all this into account, a final thought would be to consider how often the decision to make war, or how to make war, literally depends on the roll of a die.

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