Professional Wargame Development

DefLing’s rendering of a NATO CPX using the game Decisive Action. Depicted is the deployment of 9BLBMa in an attack to relieve Amiens.

By professional, I mean games specifically tailored for military, political, or administrative education. My own experience is limited to military language teaching (outlined in a forthcoming volume on matrix games edited by Chris Engle, to be published by John Curry) but stems from shared practice of the US, UK, and French trainers who helped me get started.

Time pressure at all phases from design to actual play to after-action reports is crushing. Systems simply have to work and tolerate abuse. Attendance in a game or exercise comes at large opportunity cost for the participants, whose organizations pay twice for the exercise in terms of trainer fees and in time lost by participants at their official function. It is difficult to explain to civilian wargamers, who are all too accustomed to hashing out rules ambiguities over a cup of coffee. Notes an experienced trainer to a NATO-allied army with whom I consult:

The military audience is composed of people who understand their job very well, but usually understand simulations poorly if at all. Their motivations for being in the military vary widely, and their motivation for taking part in your exercise usually boil down to “because I have to”. Don’t waste anybody’s time explaining clever design or intricate rules. Tell them what role they have, what outcome constitutes success, and then get them pointed at planning to accomplish it.

They are extremely competitive. Make sure they have clearly identified their opponents in the exercise or game, and half your motivation issues drain away. Many will complain that one or another aspect of the game is bullshit. Sometimes, they are correct. Being highly competitive humans, they also complain any time events do not run in their favor. Try to deflect these to the end when passions have cooled.

Oddly enough, many in the military audience are less discerning than a civilian audience. The civilian wargame audience really cares about the game and its subject; many in the military audience will not care as deeply. The civilian audience is already sold on the potential value of the game, while the military audience is more likely to be doubtful.

There are always technical obstacles. But those are the easy ones. It is the psychological hurdles to using games in professional military education like those outlined above, shared out more or less equally among trainer and trainees, that require development and testing to mitigate for a positive outcome. Recall that it took me a year of teaching using games just as presentation engines before I actually dared integrate a playable game into the classroom.  Over subsequent posts we’ll look at what Peter Perla and Philip Sabin, two notable practitioners, have to say about professional wargame development.

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