The Art and Science of Wargaming

For centuries, military leaders have used wargaming as a way to anticipate adversary actions and generate creative battlefield advantages. As the volume of data available to today’s leaders grows exponentially greater, the ability to act and make decisions in uncertain and complex environments is increasingly valuable – not just on the battlefield, but in the boardroom as well. Military wargames of years past considered aircraft carrier positioning and aerial refueling logistics, but more and more, the wargames seek to tackle issues like cybersecurity and personnel management – challenges equally relevant to the Department of Defense and the private sector.

Unlike live exercises or prolonged strategy offsites, wargaming provides leaders at all levels a low-cost, low-risk environment in which to explore tradeoffs, understand risks, discover gaps, and think creatively about the future. Wargames allow diverse groups with varied perspectives to temporarily detach from the urgencies of the present, momentarily transcend institutional barriers, share knowledge across domains, and grapple collectively with possibilities, risks, and other uncertainties about the future.

This has become a powerful and accepted form of scenario design that has the ability to incorporate a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative input. In short, wargames can generate innovative strategies that other methods are not well equipped to create.

The Benefits of Wargaming

Wargaming affords the opportunity to test concepts and strategies through the use of simulation. Through engaging experiences, participants can consider a situation from multiple perspectives in an evolving environment. Scenarios and moves simulate the stress of rapid decision-making in an atmosphere of limited or ambiguous resource constraints, without the risks inherent in the actual events.

A well-executed wargame offers a host of benefits:

  • Smarter Strategic Decisions: Bring a wider variety of perspectives to the table and confront the group with challenging scenarios drives deep insights.
  • Faster Solutions: Temporarily break down organization stovepipes in a creative forum accelerates innovation.
  • Memorable Learning: Simulate daunting challenges to create an unmatched learning experience that a team won’t soon forget.
  • Strengthened Relationships: Bring together specialists and stakeholders who would be responsible for responding to a crisis or challenge in real life to nurture relationships and expand the network of every participant.

When done well, wargames challenge foregone conclusions, break down stale perspectives, and offer views of the future that could not be produced in other ways. Participants emerge with an expanded perspective of things like logistics, requirements, risks, concepts and order of impacts that allow them to improve plans, mitigate risks, and eliminate methods that won’t work – before taking them into the field.

How to Wargame

In standard military wargaming, participants test options for addressing a difficult strategic or operational problem in the context of a scenario or variety of scenarios. Participants form teams that represent the host organization and its adversary or competitor(s).

At the beginning of a game, participants receive a scenario that contains details about the problem, their environment, and the resources at their disposal. Upon that foundation, additional related problems ( “injects”) are added to alter the scenario, keeping it as similar as possible to a fluid, real-world environment.

As each team makes their moves, actions are adjudicated by modeling and simulation tools, the game facilitators, or a “white cell” team. At the close of the wargame, the group analyzes the moves and outcomes to determine how well each course of action enabled the team to achieve their objectives. That assessment informs how the scenario could translate into implications for the real world, whether that is responding to a cyber-attack, natural disaster, or any other complex and quickly evolving situation.

The highest value games have a direct impact on how strategy and policy are written, how resources are invested, or how leaders consider complex decisions. For that reason, Toffler Associates approaches wargames with the intent to generate both qualitative and quantitative insights to inform these critical actions.

At the heart of wargaming efforts is a balance of the science (quantitative data, proof points) with the art (qualitative directives, context, insights, beliefs).

The Science of Wargaming

The first step in a wargame is to ascertain why you’re running the wargame. Are you striving to inform a decision? Impact strategy? Learn? Without a fundamental objective, the exercise is unlikely to have the desired impact.

Once you have established the why, you can set relevant objectives and evaluation criteria. This step helps to ensure that the data generated by the exercise is appropriate to the decisions you need to inform or the learning experience you are seeking to create.

Game designers must analyze the commentary and data generated by the game to share insights and outcomes with the relevant community. Today, unbiased cognitive tools are taking a seat at the table to help ingest and make sense of game data, horizon scanning, and environmental analysis, adding a layer of clarity that makes wargaming more effective than ever before.

The Art of Wargaming

Beyond the obvious benefit of data to provide hard facts in a planning scenario, it’s insufficient to fundamentally change the way people think. Bringing the diverse perspectives of well-read, creative individuals can dramatically extend the ability to design and play scenarios.

Professor Phillip Tetlock…found that experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their area of expertise. Tetlock’s conclusion: ‘when seeking accuracy of predictions, it is better to turn to those… who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradictions.’ Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations.[1]

Game designers have to equip participants with a viable story around the scenario so that players can comprehend and accept how it is possible to arrive in the future environment. Without this imaginative step, players may be inclined to fight the scenario because they don’t believe the projected disruptions could happen.

The Impact of Wargaming

Our experience with wargaming has shown that the results can be very different than what a team expected. The only way for wargaming to viably inform strategy is to allow it to inform and alter strategy – regardless of whether or not it confirms a foregone conclusion.

Certainly, wargaming remains inextricably linked to military strategy. However, as we move from histories of conventional warfare and into a future complicated by the intangible tertiary effects of cyber-attacks, the myriad challenges of data sharing and ownership, and a host of other complex factors, wargaming offers one of the best resources for discovering the innovative strategies that will make your organization FutureProof®.


About the Authors

Toffler Associates

As a consulting and advisory firm, Toffler Associates delivers strategic advantage to clients around the globe with an unwavering commitment to be the catalyst for change. Both the public and private sectors rely on Toffler Associates’ Future Proof® business consulting service and unique perspective to architect better futures.

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