Disaster loomed for the hard-pressed U.S. Strategic Command team and the nascent U.S. Space Force. Negotiators toiled to maintain an international coalition against Iran’s accelerating nuclear program while under U.S. Strategic Command’s inscrutable stares, as the National Reconnaissance Office winced as space debris thwarted Space Force ground station communications. Both teams, however, finished the day on the cusp of victory — and with two pleased sponsors. While fictitious, this scenario represents two plausible wargames designed by U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. I had the honor and privilege of teaching such cadets during the U.S. Air Force Academy’s undergraduate wargame design course in fall 2018, titled Wargaming Air, Space, and Cyber Power. Offered by the Military and Strategic Studies Department, this course affords structured, entry-level wargame design training to roughly fifteen cadets annually.
Recent War on the Rocks articles lament the lack of initial and intermediate wargame design courses, with wargame design knowledge largely self-taught, tucked in the minds of seasoned experts, and passed down in master-to-apprentice fashion. Thus, my goal with the course was to provide the training, guidance, and hands-on learning environment to ensure each cadet completed the course with the knowledge to design wargames suitable for publication. If part of the robust wargaming debate rests on determining what wargames are good for, then my goal in this article is to articulate the second debate: How does one learn wargame design in the first place?
Definitions, Objectives, and “Win” Conditions
I founded my course on three pillars: defining wargames, objective-based design, and learning outcomes over winning. First, I took a blend of James Dunnigan, John Curry and Peter Perla, Phil Sabin, and my own caffeinated madness to define wargaming as “a synthetic decision making test under conditions of uncertainty against thinking opponents, which generates insights but not proven outcomes, engages multiple learning types, and builds team cohesion in a risk-free environment.” Second, I enshrined the primacy of the objective. Put bluntly, without objectives you don’t have a professional game. Although we briefly discussed creating sandbox environments for generating ideas in the absence of objectives, sandbox design at best strays into teaching group facilitation (albeit game refereeing itself is a form of facilitation), and at worst enshrining poorly structured and long-winded BOGSATs as legitimate analysis tools. Finally, neither the U.S. Strategic Command wargame nor the National Reconnaissance wargame included absolute and predetermined winners. Both U.S. Strategic Command and the National Reconnaissance Office faced unmitigated disaster every time they bellied up to the table. The best learning comes from understanding failure, correcting mistakes, and revising strategies, not from sponsors patting themselves on the back. Summoning Millennium Challenge 2002’s chained and howling ghost, gaming with the sole intent to win, prove, and prop up ideas is an exercise in false future bargaining with real lives and materiel.
The Literature of Wargaming
In their fantastic new volume Successful Professional Wargames: A Practitioner’s Handbook, Longley-Brown, Curry, Perla, and Marston argue few textbooks exist for teaching wargame design. I agree with their assessment but am happy to report that existing books are also high quality. You can’t go wrong with adding Phil Sabin’s Simulating War and Jim Dunnigan’s Wargame Design Handbook to your night stand, although I’ll personally buy Jim Dunnigan a beer if he issues a fourth edition. I also recommend the U.S. Army’s U.S. Army War College Strategic Wargaming Series Handbook and the U.S. Navy’s War Gamer’s Handbook: A Guide for Professional War Gamers, and further thump John Curry and Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming like an old country preacher. Do you want even more history of wargaming art? For that, I wish Matt Caffrey’s splendid new book On Wargaming had been available during my course! These volumes distill the combined knowledge of expert practitioners convinced by accident and circumstance to teach themselves through years of apprenticeship and kitchen table prototyping. Now, throw in Geoff Engelstein’s Gametek, and Harrigan and Kirschenbaum’s Zones of Control, and you almost have a course-in-a-box for schooling yourself.
As a game scholar, I also study the psychological roots and sociological narratives of gaming. Games are more than a collection of mechanics. Rather, good games are ritual spaces inside which play becomes real to the participants (or put differently, Perla’s synthetic experience, or Johan Huizinga’s liminal space). I draw from Callois’ Man, Play, and Games, Gary Fine’s modern classic Shared Fantasy, Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, and Brian Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play. Heady stuff, to be sure, but there’s a reason why people remember great games for decades afterward — great games are viscerally lived experiences that mimic the emotions and learning of real events.
Whereas design literature documents best practices in professional game production, the cultural body informs on why games work at the cognitive and emotional levels. A well-designed game conjures real stress in the players; stress that, when overcome, reinforces learning through practice and fosters trust amongst the players. For example, simplifying a nuclear deterrence wargame example from Tom Allen’s War Games, both the blue and red teams physically and emotionally experienced the crushing stress of nuclear strike planning. The game’s liminal space shifted make-believe casualty numbers into stark realities inside the minds of the players. Hence the title of chapter two: “It’s hard to start a war.”
Learning Design Through Play
Lecturing design will only get you so far, regardless of your depth of knowledge and podium skills. Imagine the faces of delight, then, when I burst into the classroom with a groaning cart of game in tow. Sticking to the wide gaming lens gestalt of the course, I supplied games ranging from simple trick-taking card games to contemporary board games barely openable in a single class period. Fun, to be sure, but I also charged my students to deconstruct the game’s innards to figure why they’re successful games — even entertainment games have measurable objectives. Below is a sample of games students picked apart in their quest for good design fundamentals:
Wait, this is a wargame design class, right? My goal in having students deconstruct different games was twofold: first, to encourage students to learn by playing and synthesize gaming literature with actionable mechanics; and second, to expose students to a wider portfolio of game types, genres, and mechanics beyond traditional hex-based wargames.
Returning to the primacy of the objective, each team scoured the literature and games for mechanics suitable for measuring sponsor objectives. In the case of the USSTRATCOM team, the cadets developed a negotiation heatmap inspired by Persian Incursion and decision cards from A Distant Plain, a weighted opponent card deck from Descent, and Twilight Struggle’s graphic abstraction to create what their team called a “crisis negotiation engine.” The NRO team synthesized cooperative mechanics from Castle Panic, Pandemic, and The Grizzled to create a “cooperative resource allocation game,” further including The Red Dragon Inn’s interrupting card mechanic and Prowlers & Paragon’s resolve system to inject player agency and mitigate dice chance. We also focused on hard copy game design, although I gave an introductory lesson on free software tools CyberBoard, Vassal, and ZunTzu and paid software solutions GameMaker 2 and Tabletop Simulator. A single-semester course, however, is too short to practically cover both fundamental design practices and software considerations (however, simple and free tools suggest that software solutions need not be complicated). Moreover, the act of handling physical game pieces — rolling dice, shuffling cards, dogearing the manual — conditions the liminal state and primes players for receptive gameplay experiences.
Assessing a Gaming Course
My course was predominantly project-based. Although I assessed students’ grasp of the literature through reflection essays, their big-ticket grades were a midterm prototype and final play-tested and printed wargame — even better for real customers. There are few things I find more disagreeable in academia than observing students pour their intellectual capital into projects, only for the projects to be shelved. In contrast, few things inspire world-class motivation like live performance under withering customer scrutiny. I divided the class into two eight-cadet teams respectively for U.S. Strategic Command and the National Reconnaissance Office. The sponsors and I initiated dialogue, but from that point the games were entirely cadet driven. The teams interviewed the sponsors for objectives, determined how to measure the objectives, prototyped and play-tested their games, and ultimately delivered effective tools for addressing sponsor requirements. Meaning, of course, the games generated more questions than answers: better to ask the questions at the table before bargaining with a real opponent or launching a new military service.
This collaborative, sponsor-oriented process almost guaranteed an ‘A’ in the course. I mean, what cadet wakes in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says to themselves, “Today I’m turning in crappy product to a major defense agency?” Indeed, the constant sponsor communication ensured quality. This, of course, imposed tremendous stress on the cadets as both their grades and reputations were on the line. But my students were unanimous in course feedback that supporting a living, breathing customer inspired these future officers of character to give their best. Cadet performance and feedback further suggested the literature, game deconstruction, and project deliverable functioned as intended for teaching and reinforcing game design fundamentals.
Entry-Level Wargame Education
One nut I failed to crack was the large versus small game problem. My students suggested designing several smaller games rather than a singularly long game for grading purposes; however, a 40-hour course evaporates rapidly and was just enough time to finish the respective USSTRATCOM and NRO games. In truth, my preference is multiple small games, but this approach would limit sponsor options except for the most abstract treatments. In future sponsor-project courses, I’d consider dividing students into smaller, four-student teams in order to mimic the “many small games” method by increasing each student’s individual contributions to larger games.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no undergraduate degrees in tabletop wargame design, or even games in general aside from video game design programs. I concur with fellow War on the Rocks authors that most game design is largely feral and self-taught. Indeed, except for a graduate school elective and short Military Operations Research Society course, my wargame design training started with building a Sergeant’s Time exercise back in the black and white film era of 1997 and thereafter stumbling into design opportunities. What can we do to improve entry-level design training? This is just one course, but it at least produces a baker’s dozen of formally trained entry-level designers that didn’t exist previously. At the risk of other service academies egging my house, I advocate replicating the U.S. Air Force Academy’s course across sister academies and perhaps The Virginia Military Institute The Citadel, Texas A&M, and the other senior military Colleges. Branching out to other ROTC programs and enlisted training pipelines raises enrollment, cost, time, and capacity questions, but those questions are worth discussing.
Next is the Military Operations Research Society Certificate in Wargaming Course. I admittedly have not attended, as I’ve been so far unsuccessful in holding a bake sale profitable enough to fund it. As a member of the Wargaming Community of Practice and knowing graduates of the program, however, I argue the course worth every penny that unit training budgets can spare. Another idea is to bring training directly to units. I did it in 40 hours over a semester. The Military Operations Research Society can run a 40-hour course in a single intense week. Sure, you’ll be hallucinating hex grids by the 39th hour on Friday, but if we’re serious about improving the wargame design pipeline then we must take formal course investments equally as seriously. In the absence of formal training, play, read and design. Start office gaming groups designed around not just good-natured challenges and camaraderie, but also gameplay deconstruction and reflection. Take the links I’ve posted here and use them for the powers of wargaming good. Add BoardGameGeek and PAXSims to your daily reading and download the latest Simulation & Gaming from your local library. Take a risk and post your designs to Wargame Vault and The Game Crafter. Be part of the discussion and join the ranks of the self-taught. Embrace and create the pipeline we need.
And, of course, read War on the Rocks.
Dr. James “Pigeon” Fielder is an adjunct professor of political science at Colorado State University and founding rabble-rouser of Liminal Operations, LLC. He researches interpersonal trust across networks and emergent trust inside game worlds as natural experiments. He served 25 years in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force and retired as an associate professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed here are his own. CSU, LinkedIn
He’d like to acknowledge Dr. Michael “Ludes” Martindale for founding MSS 372, MORS wargame course-certified Capt. Christina Estrada of the U.S. Air Force, for lending her expertise during the worst of his harebrained scheming, and Lt. Col. Chris “MOGS” Dinote of the U.S. Air Force and Evil Beagle Games editor Jennifer “Maven” Shinefeld for destroying the first draft of this article.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Timothy Hernandez)
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