Category Archives: Wargames

Sea Control 135 – Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, President of the U.S. Naval War College

By Ashley O’Keefe

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, president of the U.S. Naval War College (USNWC), to talk about the ways in which the College is adapting to a rapidly changing strategic environment. We’ll learn about the USNWC’s updated mission set, their outreach to the international community, and their part in the new renaissance in wargaming, among other topics.

Download Sea Control 135 – Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, President of the U.S. Naval War College 

The transcript of the conversation between Admiral Harley and Ashley O’Keefe begins below. Special thanks to Associate Producers Roman Madaus and Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode.

Ashley: Good afternoon, and welcome to this week’s Sea Control podcast. I’m Ashley O’Keefe, and I’m here today with Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, the president of the United States Naval War College. He’s a career surface warfare officer, and a foreign policy expert. He has a masters from Tufts – the Fletcher School – and the Naval War College, and he’s been the president here at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) for almost a year. We’re really looking forward to this discussion. Thank you again for being here, Admiral.

Many of our listeners have heard of the U.S. Naval War College, and most know about your core mission of educating and developing future naval leaders. There have been some big developments here in the last year, with an expanding mission set and several new initiatives launched here in Newport. Can you describe some of the impetus for those changes?

RADM Harley: The big change that we have is a function of our strategic plan – meaning that we have a plan on how we’re going to keep the College relevant. When you look at the strategic environment around us, you’ll recognize the exponential change everywhere, whether it’s in leadership or in technology. The demands placed on the educational system as a result of that exponential change require that we do things to ensure our relevance. So, some of the initiatives that we have are a function of that change – of trying to keep up with that change and maintaining our relevance.

We have a number of missions here at the college, but I’d like to start out by saying that when people say we’re the U.S. Naval War College, we’re really none of those things. We’re not U.S. – we’re an international school. Of our student body, one-sixth of them, some 110 students, are international students. We are not a naval college, we’re a joint college. We have students from all over the interagency, civilian agencies, all of the different services – we are a joint college and not merely naval. We are a war college in the sense that we study war, but we truly study the constructs of peace, the understanding of policy and strategy and the interrelationships between the two, all with a goal of preventing war. And then, probably trivial, but we’re not really a college, we’re a university, because we have four or five different colleges within our system, as well as a very large research arm that includes wargaming capacity. So, we’re really none of those things –U.S. Naval War or College. If we changed our name it would be something like the ‘International Joint Peace University,’ so it would be fairly complex.

But the impetus is really the change that’s going on around us, and so we’ve expanded our missions to reflect that change and that requirement for us to maintain that relevancy. And so we also look of course for how we can make a great institution even greater.

As you said, our principal mission, the core mission upon which everything else builds, is the education and development of future leaders. That’s our student body throughput. It’s also a reflection of our distance education capability. We have hundreds of thousands of people enrolled in our distance education programs through the College of Distance Education.

In the past, we had principally four missions, and the second one would be helping to define the future Navy. Whether that’s through fleet architecture studies, or helping to red-team those studies or helping to provide the home of thought – the strategic underpinnings of those kind of dialogues.

Our third mission was to support combat readiness, and we do that through our College of Operational and Strategic Leadership. And what they do is they have a number of advise-and-assist teams that work closely with the fleets. They participate in conferences, events, and wargaming all over the world to do that.

Our fourth mission always was to strengthen global maritime partnerships, which we do on a number of levels, including the International Seapower Symposium which happens every other year, a number of regional alumni symposia, as well as the international student throughput that goes with that.

The additional missions that we’ve added in some ways reflect things that we already do, but they also reflect expansion in these areas as well. We’ve added three relatively new missions.

The first is promoting ethics and leadership. Of course, when we talk about educating and developing future leaders, we’ve always had a leadership component, but we folded in a great deal of additional study in the curriculum and are working with the Navy Leadership and Ethics Center (NLEC) to expand the impact of our education and training provided through the education system at the various touch points. That continues to expand.

The second of those three new missions is contributing historical knowledge to shape decisions. We’ve always had a strong history here reflected in world-class archives and our History Center, and we’re expanding our Maritime History Center to be a Maritime History and Research Center. We’re trying to build this into a hive of activity. Understanding history is critical. History may not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme, as they say. So, having a world-class history research center here is critical to our future development within the College. Of course, in the 1970s, Admiral Stansfield Turner had the Turner revolution, in which he imbued history throughout the entire curriculum, and it remains to this day part of the national treasure of being able to attend this College, the historical underpinnings that you get in terms of understanding strategy and policy.

The last mission is providing input to the international legal community. We do that through our Stockton Center. That center contributes to the international dialogue on everything from the law of the sea, to law of war, to conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, and simply so much more. The impetus was indeed the change that’s going on around us – the need to maintain our relevance here at this extraordinary institution and these new missions are simply a reflection of that need.

Ashley: Thank you, Admiral. It must be a really exciting time to be here at the War College. When you talk about these new missions –  or at least, writing down the things that were already happening to some extent – what is some of the work that you see coming out of places like the Maritime History Center, the Stockton Center, that’s exciting to you? What do you think are some of the impacts that you see coming from those places inside of the War College?

RADM Harley: Well, I would think that we’re at the forefront of so much of the thinking in so many different areas. So, illuminating history is the contribution of the History Center, again soon-to-be renamed History and Research Center. History has that critical role in so many things we do, and again, there’s so much history embedded in the institution. But also within our curriculum, providing that historical foundation, which, often for many of the students with very technical backgrounds, is the first time that they get this extent of the historical underpinning. And then the Stockton Center contributes an enormous amount at the maritime level, the national level, and the international level. On the issues of the day – key, critical issues that you see every day, such as the law of the sea issues in the South China Sea, vis-a-vis China, or the law of war, or conflict prevention, or the interfaces with the United Nations… it’s pretty extraordinary, the things that we’re doing.

I’ll just torture you with this idea of using those kind of examples of history and of the international law center as simply being a reflection of the contributions that the College makes at the national level. We’re continuing to expand how we ensure that relevancy of those seven missions. We’re doing that through what I call the “izes.”

The first of those is that we’re going to continue to operationalize the Naval War College. We’re doing that by enhancing the operations analysis that we do in concert with the Naval Warfare Development Command as well as the modeling and simulation that takes place within the Pentagon and other places. We’re operationalizing in terms of the way that we’re adding additional warfighting education to our curriculum. We’re adding particularly in terms of sea control and all-domain access. We’ve reflected the strategic environment in which we live through the stand-up of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute here last fall so now we have world-class experts in a critical area of geopolitical interest for our nation.

We also are navalizing our curriculum. We’ve always been a joint college, at least for the past several decades, but I think that we’ve become reliant on this idea that sea control is something that you already have, and in today’s world of anti-access capabilities, it’s really important that we teach sea control and maritime capabilities, all in accordance with the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.

We’re also futurizing the College. We’ve got our expanded and much more robust cyber curriculum, we’re teaching unmanned systems, we’re teaching space, we’re teaching the new and emerging technologies that influence the strategic environment. Within that futurization initiative is the creation of an Institute for Future Warfare Studies, which is going to allow us to look 30 or more years out into the future, instead of the tendency to look a very short period of time out, because of exponential change. But you can study future probabilities, and you can look that far out, and you can look at force architectures that would be required to work in that environment thirty years from now.

And then the last thing that we’re doing in terms of those “izes” is that we’re internationalizing our College. And by that I mean that we’re expanding the international interfaces that we have and we’re increasing the number of regional alumni symposia that we execute with our international  graduates in between our International Seapower Symposia that we conduct every two years. We’ve increased the number of Chief of Naval Operations International Fellows that we have onboard as part of our faculty. In fact, just a month ago, we brought on the former head of navy from Japan, Admiral Takei, so now Professor Takei is part of our faculty and staff. He brings a great deal of warfighting and educational experience to help shape the contours of the education that we provide both to our student body throughput, but also to our wargaming, and to our advise and assist teams that are really all over the world. This fall, we hope to bring on board the former head of navy from Norway. In doing so, we’ll have the Atlantic experience, the Arctic exposure, and obviously some NATO experience. So that will increase our CNO international fellows to four, and we’ll look to continue to expand that program because of the great skill sets that they can bring to the College and to the education for our individual students.

So those four “izes” really put into context the means and the lines of effort by which we aim to increase the relevance of this great institution.

Ashley: It’s exciting that as the College expands and creates value on so many different levels that it’s not insular, it’s really very global in perspective. And many of our listeners are in fact not in the U.S. – they’re foreign naval officers, they’re otherwise interested maritime security people. So when we think about how the College does interact, I understand that you take in foreign naval officers for education, but what are some other places where the College is collaborating internationally, maybe you could talk about the regional alumni symposia and what those bring to the table.

RADM Harley: The big effort that we make is the International Seapower Symposium here in Newport. The next one will be in the fall of 2018. That will be a largely attended event; it’ll have something on the order of 85 heads of navy here. To keep the momentum going between the International Seapower Symposia, we do hold these regional alumni symposia. About a month ago, we held one in Lima, Peru. It was focused on the Americas – all the way from Canada to South America. Simply extraordinary – we talk regional and local issues, we bring world-class experts in from the respective nations as well as from the U.S. Naval War College.

It helps us maintain the alumni relations and develop a deeper understanding of the issues that affect the regions. And we rotate, throughout the cycle, to get to all the different areas of the world. Our next one is scheduled for this fall. It will be in the Middle East, and then we’ll be in Asia in the spring, then we’ll do the International Seapower Symposium next fall, then keep the rotation going between Africa and Europe. So it’s a pretty exciting opportunity to maintain those alumni relations, and their connections to the College that many of our international student graduates have come to know and love and respect for the contributions that we make in this international dialogue.

Ashley: One more last hot topic before I let you go, sir. Everybody loves to talk about wargaming. It’s been hot since, I suppose, Sims and Luce, but today we’re talking about it as well. So what are some of the new developments? I see it pop up a couple of times in some of those new mission areas that you talked about – could you maybe just explain a little bit more what you’re doing here?

RADM Harley: I think you’re right, there’s certainly been a renaissance in wargaming, led by Deputy Secretary Work in the Pentagon, and we’ve revitalized our wargaming program in a number of different ways. We’re really focusing hard on integrating the wargaming through the ops analysis community. By that I mean with the folks who do modeling and simulation and those who do experimentation. So, there is a greater effort to have that level of integration, so that your wargaming is informed by the experimentation that’s taking place. The experimentation that you’re doing is informed by the wargaming that you’re doing – and apply that same argument to the interfaces with modeling and simulation.

We’re also slowly expanding the amount of wargaming that we do with the student body. We of course have groups that are student-led. That’s essentially their elective while they’re here at the College. But we’re trying to get wargaming exposure to every student who comes through this great college, so everybody will have an opportunity to participate in wargaming.

We’re expanding the analysis that we’re doing in the wargaming, putting the appropriate focus on the quality of the analysis to make the quality of the wargames even better through the strategic enterprise of our Navy. The scheduling of the gaming has been refined to the point to offer the optimal output for the capacity that we have, and integration with all of the other entities that do wargaming as well. So you’re absolutely right, there’s so much going on with our wargaming, with our research, all integrated into the broader Navy analytic agenda. We’re excited about the ability to imbue each and every student with a fundamental understanding of  the contributions that wargaming can make.

Ashley: Well, sir, I think that you’re going to get a spike in applicants here as our CIMSEC listeners all get excited about the things that the College is doing, and just how vibrant this community is here. Is there anything else that you wanted to cover or leave our listeners with anything to close?

RADM Harley: Well, I’m humbled and honored to serve here at your USNWC. We do look forward to being able to maintain the dialogue with the international community, providing appropriate strategic thinking to our national leadership, particularly on maritime issues. We do so much to contribute to that dialogue and we’re just honored and humbled to be a part of that dialogue that takes place in this most demanding and complex of times.

Ashley: Thank you again for your time this afternoon, Admiral!

Rear Admiral Jeff Harley is the President of the U.S. Naval War College.

Ashley O’Keefe is the CIMSEC Secretary for 2016-2017. She is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. 

A Conversation with Wargaming Grandmaster Dr. Phil Sabin

By LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN

If chess titles were appropriate, then Dr. Philip Sabin would certainly fall somewhere in the upper pantheon of wargamers. A Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, Dr. Sabin is a gamer, a game designer, and a teacher with over thirty years of experience showing others how wargaming has practical use for military planning.

His new book, Simulating War, has a lot going for it. In his book, he talks about the history of wargaming, how to develop wargames, what works and what doesn’t, why wargames are an important part of military planning, and much more.

We had the chance to talk in detail about his book, wargaming, and what got him started many years ago. 

Prof. Sabin, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us about wargaming and your new book, Simulating War. What got you started in wargames?

When I was a child, like many children of that era, I collected toy soldiers and invented games with them. And then, I think I was about twelve years old, and at school a friend of mine had this book called Battle! Practical Wargaming by Charles Grant. This book was a revelation — the idea that you could have rules and do more than simply knock the soldiers down. I remember borrowing the book and copying all the rules overnight. That was the initial thing that got me started.

Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games, by Dr. Phil Sabin/Google Books
Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games, by Dr. Phil Sabin. (Google Books)

What do you think wargames can teach us about war?

Let me go back to my childhood experiences. Having started with this game about World War II tactical battles, I soon discovered there were other sets of rules out there for that period and other periods. In particular, there was a group of rules writers in Britain in the 60s and 70s called the Wargames Research Group. This group was made up of army veterans – they knew what war was about.  There was one particular game I played with their rules, a competition game, so it actually counted for something. My opposing player had set out his line, and I decided I was going to go for a clever tactic. So I had half my force opposing his main line, while the other half went around a neighboring wood. I was going to try to encircle him. I thought I was the greatest general in history. 

Unfortunately, that was when I discovered Clausewitzian friction. You see, going around the wood took a long time. And then I got bogged down in skirmishing when trying to encircle the enemy.  In short, my wonderful, clever plan fell apart because my holding force was overwhelmed before my turning force got there. So I realized it is not as simple as having a really clever plan. You have to think about “keep it simple stupid.”  Think about the time factor rather than just arrows on a map. Those sorts of lessons really showed me the potential of wargaming.

What advice would you give military planners when wargaming? 

Funnily enough I was talking to one of my research students last night about this very issue. He is doing his research on how armies use wargaming. Wargaming is often just done by going for the simplest, most accessible approach. The idea that you would use rules or dice is seen as silly. And in effect, it becomes “let’s just talk about the plan.” I think the key thing is to move beyond simple discussion of a plan to the explicit articulation of an active opponent. Now, already there is the concept of red teaming.  And basically that is ‘what if the enemy does this? Well then, OK, we’ll use our reserves to counter, and so on.’ That is certainly better than congratulating yourself as I was doing when I had my forces going around the wood. 

The problem with red teaming is that it is disconnected.  In reality, the enemy faces the same planning challenges your own force does. They need to come up with a coherent plan. They have to think about the dilemmas they face. One of the most important differences between wargaming and red teaming is that in wargaming you have someone playing the opposing side and trying to win. This is crucial. They are not just the loyal opposition going through the motions. They are really trying to beat you. And they’ve faced the dilemma that they have the same force, space, and time constraints as you do, but within that they have the freedom to operate. The opposing side will be really pleased if they win, but in fact it’s good if they win because it’s a wargame — it’s not reality. It’s very important that if you are going to have something go badly wrong, it is better for that to happen before you do the real thing and people are dying. That’s the most important component: to have enemies who are trying to win and who are thinking separately from your own side.

Let me give you one illustration how this really became clear to me. This is from a project I worked on with the British Army. It was a two sided game. Two forces were playing against one another, and one of them was using British forces and set up a textbook ambush.  They had the killing zone laid out, they had their holding forces ready, they had some tanks hidden in the wood ready to come in on the flank, and they were just waiting for the enemy to come into the killing zone where the decisive blow would be struck. And so they waited.  Then they asked “Where is he?” and “Why is he not coming?”  And then they realized, “Oh no! He is on the flank!” That really brought out that the enemy has a very important vote. That is where wargaming comes in. 

There are all sorts of mechanical issues that arise — whether to use dice, and so on. But frankly those are second order issues compared to having a team playing the opponent and trying to win. Red needs to be constrained, they can’t suddenly use forces in places that they don’t have them. But it is through wargaming a situation several times that you get a sense of the variety. A wargame is not an exercise. When you take troops out and you want to make sure they all get the training value, there needs to be a scripted element to it. But a wargame mustn’t be scripted, because that destroys the whole point of it. And you mustn’t use your magical powers to restore things. For example, when the Japanese were wargaming the Battle of Midway, some of their carriers got sunk, and they said that would never happen, so they revived them. But of course, when they lost them for real, they couldn’t magically revive them — they weren’t Gods anymore.

What do you think makes a really good wargame? Is it the number of players for example? Or is it the simplicity of the game?  Something else?

I don’t think it is defined by parameters such as the number of players or the playing time, important as those are. I think the basis of a good board game or wargame is that it involves the players and gets them deciding things. It faces them with dilemmas. If players can clearly see what they need to do, well then they are just going through the motions. Wargames come to life when there are real choices, and the best strategies are far from obvious.

The balance between skill and luck, and the involvement of the players, are crucial. With multiplayer games, it is very much about diplomatic skills and trying to make sure that you don’t appear to be the winner until you eventually appear as such. With two players, though, you can can get at some other important elements of the contest, because war is often a bilateral contest. How do you overcome an opponent in what is essentially a zero sum game? There are plenty of contests in which that is the dynamic, the interaction between two dynamic opponents. So two players is just as good as three, it’s just a different experience.

It is important to point out that you don’t even need two players. For a wargame as opposed to an abstract board game, one of the most interesting things is to model and capture the dynamics of an operation. In fact, single players can get a lot of fulfillment out of a wargame, by playing each side in turn. There is little point in playing a game like chess against yourself, since it is just an abstract symmetrical game. But with an asymmetric, realistic wargame, just studying and understanding the dynamics of military operations that are facing both sides can be enormously instructive. So, it does really help if the game can be played with one person. And many wargames are played solo as a matter of course — people may still learn a great deal from them.

What are the advantages of playing a wargame on a board or a map and on a table rather than, let’s say, playing a game on a computer?

There was a perception until recently that board games in general had died out. Everything, people believed, was going the way of video games, computer games, that sort of thing. But that of course is not true — board games are very much coming back in all these different areas.  I think there are a number of reasons for this. 

One of them is that, although the computer has incredible graphics, the appearance and the feel of a manual game can be superior. For example, you can glance at a map and you can see the whole thing. You can also focus in where you choose and see the details. On a computer screen you tend to have one or the other: you can zoom in or you can see the whole picture, but you can’t have the best of both worlds. With a board game it feels better, it’s tactile, players are talking to one another and looking at one another. They aren’t looking at a computer screen all the time. It’s much more social than playing a computer game. 

Next, board games are independent of technology. You don’t have the problem of getting lots of computers to run them or finding the game no longer runs because you don’t have the right Windows operating system. You can pick up board games that were made fifty years ago, and they will play just as well as they did when they were new. You can’t do that with computer games that are even ten years old.

Board games are also cheap — certainly when you consider all the infrastructure that is required for computer gaming. Computer games tend to be built on a mass market principle. There are enormously successful computer games, like “Call of Duty” for example, but they are built for the millions because otherwise they couldn’t make their money back. Therefore they have to be first and foremost entertainment products. And if entertainment collides with realism, then entertainment wins, just as it does in Hollywood for the same reasons. However, in board games you can get them printed in the hundreds and still just about break even. This means you can have more realistic games, because you can design for a niche audience that is interested in realism rather than an audience that is interested in blasting pixels representing Germans or aliens or whatever it might be.

You’ve also got the openness of the board game system.  A computer game is like a black box. You might be able to play it easily, but you can’t see what’s making it tick — you can’t see what rules are working behind the scenes. Now, a board game is all there openly for you. You have to engage with it, you have to learn the rules, and as you learn the rules you can see if you agree with them or not. Board games also don’t have the same luxury as computer games that you can cram in everything. Computer games will revel in every round tracked, every single meal a soldier eats, etc., because a computer can. However, that does not necessarily mean it is realistic. Board game designers, because they need to keep things simple enough to be played, need to focus to determine what really matters. They ask: What can we abstract out? This is significant, because when humans analyze the world we need to abstract in order to prioritize. Board game designers can’t just throw everything in and hope the product is going to be realistic.

Finally and decisively, I think, is adaptability. You can look at a board game and see if you agree with it or not.  If it is going wrong, you can see where it is going wrong.  Students in my MA course are not just playing games that others have designed – they are designing their own games. As soon as you play a game, very often you’ll find something wrong with the game. If so, you can write your own section of the rules and tweak it and play it. Once you have done that a few times, you are moving towards designing your own game. So it’s adaptable, far, far more than a computer game.

What are the top five board games you would recommend to any military planner and why?

This is a difficult question for several reasons. First of all, I want to lay out why it is a hard question, even though there are literally tens of thousands of boardgames out there. It’s hard to make recommendations of this kind. Let me just run through some of the problems. One is accessibility. Unless planners are already wargamers, they will find the ones that have already been published completely inaccessible because they will be too complex for them. That’s one issue. 

The second reason it is difficult to answer is that military planners tend to be focused on the most recent past and the future. Most of the board games that have been published — especially the good ones — are not about the most recent conflicts. The same, of course, goes for the great majority of books about war – they cover conflicts which are receding inexorably into the past. 

The third issue is interest. It depends who the military planners are and what service they are in and what they are most thinking about. That of course will shape what games are most useful to them. Now, I do have a few suggestions, but please take into account the caveats I have outlined. 

I think planners need to start with something simple.  And it’s precisely for this reason that I wrote my book Simulating War. In the book there are games that can be played easily, particularly for people that have never played a wargame. So I would suggest that people start simple. It can be a game that takes fifteen minutes. Some of the things I talk about in Simulating War capture nicely the key elements of wargames. For instance, do you reinforce success or do you try and rescue failure? Those sort of classic military dilemmas are encapsulated even in simple games.

Now moving on from that, I’ll mention some recent games that focus on asymmetric contests, to show that wargames are not necessarily about big generic fights against matched symmetric opponents. One is “Beirut ’82” by Tom Kane. It was published in the late 1980s. It beautifully captures the problem for the Israelis: that they can overwhelm the PLO, but doing so by using massive fire power in the city would mean a political defeat. It is one of the early games that show the balance of military force against political constraints. 

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Board game Beirut ’82 by Tom Kane. (BoardGameGeek)

Joe Miranda has produced quite a number of games on recent conflicts. There are hits and misses. One of them that is quite interesting is called “Drive on Baghdad.” It’s about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In that game you are having to balance political and military concerns as well.  For example, what sort of resources are you going to use when they are not unlimited? How far are you going to focus on special forces? Or how far are you going to use conventional ground power? And how do these forces interact together against an outmatched opponent — but nevertheless one that is capable of unpredictable reactions? 

Brian Train is a good designer who has designed a number of games on recent conflicts. One that I think would be interesting for people to look at is his game on “Kandahar.” It focuses on the challenge of fighting in a counterinsurgency environment in which there are multiple interests. It’s a two player game, but interestingly, the coalition forces are forces that are to be brought in and manipulated, rather than being under direct player control. 

The final thing I recommend is that people have a look at some multiplayer games. The principle of multiplayer games is more important than the game you choose. If you want a multiplayer game that’s relevant to contemporary conflict, then you might want to look at “A Distant Plain.” It’s one of a series on counterinsurgency.  It’s a little bit complex and abstract, but the interaction between the four factions is at the heart of the game, and there are artificial intelligence rules to allow fewer live players if desired.

A Distant Plain by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train. (Juha Kettunen via BoardGameGeek)
A Distant Plain by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train. (Juha Kettunen via BoardGameGeek)

What are your favorite top five games you enjoy playing?

Again, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  You might think, ‘Hey, I’m a wargaming professor, so I spend my time playing games.’ But in fact I don’t. I have limited time, so I don’t get to play much. And when I have the time, I tend to be designing rather than playing. Also, when I do play games, I have a tendency to be overly critical. So when I play I tend to be put off easily if I find problems in the gameplay or the research. There are, however, a couple of games that are well worth returning to. One is a game that came out recently from a Finnish game company. It’s called W1815. It literally allows two players to refight the Battle of Waterloo in fifteen minutes. It does it by some extremely clever abstractions, like not moving forces on the map, but still having the historical options to reinforce here or to attack there based upon some clever use of cards. I really like that game as a case study in breaking away from the idea that wargames have to be complex.

There’s a game designed by John Butterfield which I’ve played a lot. It’s called “RAF.” It’s a solitaire game about the Battle of Britain. You are the Royal Air Force, deploying your forces to counter an overwhelming but ill-informed Luftwaffe attack. It is in those sorts of situations that solitaire games work quite well, because when you have a two player game on the Battle of Britain, the Germans tend to know too much because of hindsight. Any variant of Butterfield’s game is a good one, but my own favorite is his “Hardest Days” version which focuses on individual days of the Battle.

Philip Sabin's "Hells Gate."/Pic: Amazon
Philip Sabin’s “Hells Gate.” (BoardGameGeek)

It may sound terribly immodest, but since I find so many published games to be inaccurate, over-complex or both, I tend to spend at least as much time playing my own designs such as “Hell’s Gate,” which try to overcome both of these deficiencies. My “Lost Battles” game includes scenarios for three dozen different ancient battles, and I have probably played this game more often over the years than all other wargames put together. 

Over at War on the Rocks, Dr. James Lacey wrote a piece on how he uses wargaming in the classroom. A few others, to include the U.S. Secretary of Defense, have been vocal proponents of wargaming. In your opinion, do you think there is a resurgence in wargaming?

Wargaming has always been a cyclical thing. Peter Perla has written very eloquently about this. Sometimes there are good times and sometimes there are bad times. It tends to go in cycles of a decade or two. This is just the latest upsurge. We are hoping we can make hay while the sun shines. Why should it be happening at this particular moment? I think there are a number of reasons. One is the pervasiveness of gaming within modern society. So much of our leisure time is spent playing games. It may be something like Angry Birds or a first-person shooter, or indeed board games that are being used in education. Wargaming is benefiting from the upsurge in “gamification” in society and it is no longer being seen as a childish thing. The idea that one plays games is no longer enough to damn one, because so many people are doing it.

Another reason is strategic uncertainty. We are now in a post-Iraq and Afghanistan position where it is not clear what the next crisis or the next war will involve. We need to be prepared for a wider range of contingencies. Wargaming — including historical wargaming — hence comes back into its own. Because if you don’t know what the future holds, then you need to learn about warfare generically, and that includes historical war, because it gives you a sense of the overall phenomenon. This will help to prepare you for the unknown future. 

Additionally, I think a very powerful reason, which you can see working twenty or thirty years ago as well, is that wargaming tends to flourish most when we have suffered a bloody nose. It’s interesting that the great flowering of American wargaming was in the 1970s. That was in the aftermath of Vietnam. When you realize that “Hey, we are not that good, we are not that clever, we don’t seem to be able to win,” you start to see how you might be able to do better in the future. A lot of future success, then, comes out of wargaming as a direct response to the frustrations of Vietnam. I think you are seeing some similar responses now. We have had great frustrations with some of our recent conflicts. People are saying “We are clearly not getting it right.” It is interesting to note that the Germans, as the losers in World War One, put much more effort into wargaming in the inter-war years, which paid off for them in the early years of World War Two.

What websites or magazines are good tools for someone who wants to explore wargaming or determine what games might be suited for their purposes?

I would start, in terms of websites, with a website called ConsimWorld.com. That website has a whole range of articles and links and reviews and so on, which will allow people — really starting from nothing — to get a flavor for this whole area. Then of course, there is boardgamegeek.com. BoardGameGeek is incredibly comprehensive. If I want to find out a particular wargame, I simply type in the name of the wargame and “bgg.” It will immediately bring up the wargame with reviews and pictures and more. It is much more comprehensive than ConsimWorld. But as I said, I would start with ConsimWorld.  Another place I would check out is grognard.com. This site serves as an introductory resource, similar to ConsimWorld. For computer wargames I would check out wargamer.com.

In terms of magazines, the best option, despite its small circulation, is called “Battles Magazine.” It is published in France, but in English.  There is a game in each issue. It comes out every six months or so. It is a very good compilation of reviews and theoretical discussion about board wargaming, and is the best publication even though it is largely unknown. There is also a number of American magazines. Most of them contain more or less superficial discussions on military topics, accompanied by a wargame. However, “Against the Odds” is a magazine that is worth looking into.  If you want to know about games published over the last forty or fifty years, there was a review magazine called “Fire & Movement” which is no longer being published, but which contains good coverage of past wargames within its 150 issue run.  Hopefully they will digitize this collection for people to go back and have a look. 

You published your own commercial wargame, a game called “Hells Gate.” Can you tell us about the process of creating and publishing a wargame?

As in a number of the games I’ve created, the process started with me playing other peoples’ games on this battle (the Korsun pocket on the eastern front in early 1944), and finding them deficient in various ways and ripe for tweaking and amendment. There are  actually some good books on this battle by scholars like Glantz and Zetterling, so as my research developed I eventually got to the point where I thought I could design my own game from scratch rather than just tweaking other people’s designs. So that was the genesis of the game.

Now originally I didn’t design “Hells Gate” to be a part of my courses. I designed it because I was interested in this battle. The design process itself, on and off, took about three months. But it was very much on and off.  The way that wargame design tends to work is that you keep notes and you tend to jot down notes whenever ideas occur. Then it is a matter of lots of iterative playtesting interspersed with further rules tweaks until finally a playable and historically sound game emerges.

Once the game was ready, I realized that it was just about simple and accessible enough to use in class to illustrate the dynamics of maneuver and encirclement which I discuss in earlier lectures. Hence, I created some large scale components, and gradually built up to the current situation where I have six simultaneous games being run by teaching assistants for four or five students each. I also included Hell’s Gate as one of the several games in my Simulating War book. The final step in the process was when Victory Point Games suggested publication of a free-standing edition with professional graphics and components, which has proved very successful with the wider hobbyist community.      

Because CIMSEC is a maritime focused organization, what games would you recommend to our readers that are interested in historical maritime battles at sea?

It depends on whether people are interested in the tactical or the strategic. One game I would recommend is Ben Knight’s old magazine game “Victory at Midway.” It is a double blind game, in which neither side knows where the enemy is. It is a contest of blind man’s bluff, like the original Kriegsspiel. It also nicely shows the logistics and the challenges with launching and recovering carrier airstrikes and handling that in the face of limited information. It is a good one to start out with. 

If you are interested in the big strategic picture — especially the greatest naval war that has ever been, the Pacific War — you can do a lot worse than a game by Avalon Hill called “Victory in the Pacific.”  There you will be fighting effectively the entire naval war in the Pacific: a huge naval war with large amounts of attrition. 

Victory in the Pacific (Pablo B via BoardGameGeek)
Victory in the Pacific (Pablo B via BoardGameGeek)

There was an interesting game of contemporary naval combat called “Seastrike,” first published back in the 1970s by the Wargames Research Group.  Here you are focused on the creation of small naval task forces. There is a very telling element of constrained resources. You can put together almost any type of task group you want — you can even design your own vessels. But of course everything has a price tag attached. ‘Ok, you want to have a better anti-missile defense system?’ That’s fine, you can. But here’s the bill: It means you won’t get as much air support or whatever.’ It is a very nice planning game in terms of showing us the tradeoffs in a constrained resource environment.

Moving gradually towards the present, there is a series by Victory Games called the “Fleet Series.”  It was published in the 1980s, so it is focused very much on a U.S. v. Soviet context. It is very interesting in terms of accessibly handling the complex interaction of air and naval and subsurface forces.  There have been more recent games, but they tend to go over the top in terms of complexity.  So for an operational perspective, I would recommend one of the “Fleet Series” games. 

Top half of Soviet SAC card from 7th Fleet in Fleet Series of boardgames. (Martin via BoardGameGeek)
Top half of Soviet SAC card from 7th Fleet in Fleet Series of boardgames. (Martin via BoardGameGeek)

Finally, there is now a computer game which is in essence the successor to the famous “Harpoon” series of board and computer games. It is called “Command Modern Naval and Air Operations.” Rather than  recommending just board games, I would suggest you have a look at that, published a year or two ago. You won’t be able to modify it the same way you can a board game, but the computer can handle some of the details that would be a bit overpowering in a board game.

Prof. Phil Sabin, thank you for stopping by to chat, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Thank you.

Philip Sabin is Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has worked closely with the UK military for many years, especially through the University of London Military Education Committee, the Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Workshop, and KCL’s academic links with the Defence Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies. Professor Sabin’s current research and teaching involves strategic and tactical analysis of conflict dynamics from ancient to modern times. He makes extensive use of conflict simulation techniques to model the dynamics of various conflicts, and for thirteen years he has taught a highly innovative MA option module in which students design their own simulations of past conflicts. He has written or edited 15 books and monographs and several dozen chapters and articles on a wide variety of military topics, including nuclear strategy, British defence policy and air power. His recent books Lost Battles (2007) and Simulating War (2012) both make major contributions to the scholarly application of conflict simulation techniques.  He has just completed a contract for the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research to design a Camberley Kriegsspiel with which officers may practise battlegroup tactics.  Professor Sabin undertakes many other activities in the conflict simulation field, including co-organising the annual ‘Connections UK’ conference at KCL for over a hundred wargames professionals.  He has appeared frequently on radio and television, and has given many dozens of lectures and conference addresses around the world.

LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. On most days you’ll find him with a book in his hands. The comments above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.

Featured Image: The author H. G. Wells playing a wargame with W. Britain toy soldiers according to the rules of Little Wars. Wells is using a piece of string cut to a set length of the distance his soldiers can move. An umpire sits in a chair with his stopwatch timing Wells. Wells’ opponent waits for his turn to move and fire his cannon at Wells’ soldiers. (HG Wells)

Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945

By LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN

Silent VictoryConsim Press has published a fantastic solo player wargame in Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945.  With game design by Gregory M. Smith, Silent Victory offers a little bit of everything for someone looking for an immersive, historical naval wargame that is easy to play yet detailed enough to be fulfilling for an advanced gamer.


“EXECUTE AGAINST JAPAN UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE.”

– Chief of Naval Operations


It’s 1941 and you are a U.S. sub skipper in WWII; tasked to sink Japanese ships — tankers, freighters, personnel carriers, escorts, and capital warships — wherever you find them in the Pacific. You can play as a historical WWII sub skipper or, rather, you can simply play as yourself and choose the class of submarine you’d like to command.  You can even name the boat. When you crack open the box you’ll be impressed with how well Consim has done here.  The patrol maps, captain cards, combat mats, and submarine display mats are all printed on a heavy card-stock and the print quality is excellent.  Also included in the box are the required dice and plenty of copies of the Silent Victory patrol log sheet — important, as it is used to record the total number of tons you sink on your combat missions.

Captain Cards
Silent Victory “Captain Cards” — Play any number of historical U.S. submarine skippers. The cards are well made and display the captain’s awards, patrols, and ships/tonnage sunk.

Game Setup 

The game’s “footprint” is moderate — you’ll need a dinning room table or some floor space to lay out most of the game’s playing mats.  However, if you are space constrained, you can simply stack some of the player mats on top of one another and then retrieve them when it is time to reference a mat during a roll.  Below you’ll see my setup, and even though I had ample table space, I still stacked some of the mats (namely, the target mats which list all Japanese ships), until I needed them.  This is what it looks like:

Silent Victory Setup
Silent Victory setup takes, in my case, up to 2x3ft of a kitchen table. I decided to stack some of the mats underneath others, and I would pull them out when I needed them.

Game setup is tedious for folks playing the game for the first time.  The only reason for this, really, is that you’ll have to punch out all of the game pieces that come with the game. These include everything from Japanese ships to markers that show awards and ranks.  Future game setup is much easier if you take the time to organize the game pieces into plastic bags — grouping munitions in one, for example, and then Japanese ships in others, awards in one, torpedoes in another, and so on.

Now, before you start sinking Japanese ships, the basic setup goes like this:

1.) You decide if you want to play a historical skipper, which includes a specific submarine and starting period (you don’t have to start in 1941), to include patrols (e.g,. The Marianas, The Philippines, The Marshalls, and more). Many of these skippers already come with roll bonuses due to experience. The other option is you simply pick a submarine class and starting point (often dictated by when the submarine class enters service) and then roll dice for patrol areas, next;

2.) You’ll load out your submarine with the good stuff — torpedoes in forward and aft tubes, and ammo for the deck mounted guns on your specific submarine type. The game makers made this easy as each submarine combat mat states on the top of the mat exactly the type of torpedoes available for that submarine. For most, this was a mix of MK14 (steam) and MK18 (electric) torpedoes. Finally;

3.) Fill out your Silent Victory submarine log with the name of the sub, your captain’s name, your rank, and place your boat marker at your home port — now you’re ready to begin.

Gameplay

Once you’ve identified your patrol area, you move your submarine marker through the transit points and into the boxes located in your patrol areas. At each point, to include transit points, you’ll roll dice to see if you encounter enemy units.

North Pacific
Transiting to the Marshall Islands for patrol. Notice on the right hand side that I’ve loaded my torpedo tubes with a mixture of MK18 and MK14 torpedoes.

While transiting, you might come across an aircraft or maybe a lone ship, but this is rare as roll of the dice go. Once you enter your patrol areas, however, the possibilities of rolling an encounter increase. For encounters, you can run into warships, convoys with escorts, or unescorted ships.To the game designer’s credit, they’ve assigned different probabilities per year as to what ships a submarine skipper might encounter. For example, it was tough to find a large Japanese freighter or Japanese capital warship still afloat by 1945. 

Small Freighter
One of the game’s Japanese target mats. You’ll roll two d10s to determine which target you’ve encountered.

Next, when you encounter a Japanese merchant vessel or Japanese warship, you can attack it (you can also choose to not attack). You will roll for day or night. Are you surfaced or submerged? You then assign the type and number of torpedoes and/or deck gun shots against your target(s). Then you will roll to see how effective each shot is. If not already obvious, dice will determine a lot of what occurs in this game — damage to your ship, damage to Japanese ships, being detected, dud torpedoes, and more.  Oh, did I say “dud torpedoes?” Yes. This was a problem in WWII. It is also one of the things that make this a challenging game.

Torps
I encountered two Japanese ships during one patrol. I assigned three torpedoes for each on my combat mat. Excessive? Not really. I quickly learned that for each torpedo launched in 1943 there was a 33% chance that it would not explode or hit its target.

For every torpedo you fire, you’ll roll a 1d6 dice for a dud. Roll a 1 or 2, well, you are out of luck. It might have hit, but it didn’t explode. Dud. This happened to me at least three times in two patrols. It was a fact — the U.S. Navy had a torpedo problem. Clay Blair Jr.’s magisterial book Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan made this clear:

“…[T}he submarine force was hobbled by defective torpedoes.  Developed in peacetime but never realistically tested against targets, the U.S. submarine torpedo was believed to be one of the most lethal weapons in the history of naval warfare.  It had two exploders, a regular one that detonated it on contact with the side of an enemy ship and a very secret “magnetic exploder” that would detonate it beneath the keel of a ship without contact.  After the war began, submariners discovered the hard way that the torpedo did not run steadily at the depth set into its controls and often went much deeper than designed, too deep for the magnetic exploder to work.”

Blair notes that not until late 1943 would the U.S. Navy fix the numerous torpedo problems.

For my recent game play, I decided to play as Lieutenant Commander Slade Cutter, USN. Cutter, who originally intended to be a professional flutist, ended the war with four Navy Crosses, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star with combat “V,” and a Presidential Unit Citation. He sank over 140,000 tons of Japanese shipping. In two hours of gameplay I couldn’t come close to that number. But we had a good run. I played the first two patrol areas listed on Cutter’s captain card: The Marianas and The Marshall Islands.

SLUG: ME/Cutter-ob DATE SHOT: 07/27/1944 (Downloaded 06/12/2005 by EEL) CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Navy CAPTION:Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Lt. Cmdr. Slade Cutter, right, for his exploits as a submarine skipper in raids against Japanese shipping on July 27, 1944 at a ceremony in San Francisco. Lt. Cmdr. Cutter of Vallejo and Hollywood, sank 18 Japanese ships, during three successive patrols in enemy-controlled waters. Cutter was also awarded two gold stars in lieu of second and third Navy Crosses.
U.S. Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Lt. Cmdr. Slade Cutter, right. AP Photo.

To summarize two patrols and two hours of play, these were the highlights:

  • I encountered an escorted ship in The Marianas.  I rolled a dud for one MK 18 but assigned enough torpedoes to sink the freighter and its escort on subsequent rolls.
  • I encountered an aircraft.  I rolled a successful crash dive and staved off any damage.
  • I was rebased to Australia following a “random event” roll.  (These may occur once in a patrol.)
  • I refit my submarine when I rebased in Australia.
  • On my Marshall Islands patrol I encountered a three ship convoy with an escort.  I sunk all three merchant vessels, but had to finish the last merchant vessel off with the deck gun (5”) — which I assigned at the last moment.
  • I encountered a warship which I decided not to engage.
  • And I returned to base after two successful patrols and earned two battle stars, a navy cross, and rolled for promotion to Commander — which was successful.
tons
After two patrols I sunk 8 ships that totaled 28,200 tons. A few got away…

I was fortunate. During my two patrols, when I encountered escorts and rolled for detection, I always rolled “no detection.” If I had been detected, I would have had to roll for depth charge destruction. This includes flooding, damage to systems, hull damage, and sailors injured or killed. Not good. But I managed to get everyone back home after two patrols with all fingers and toes. Still, the risk was there every time I decided to engage a convoy with escorts. So, why is this game so much fun?

Conclusion

There are three reasons why this game succeeds.  

First, historical accuracy. From the problems with torpedoes, to the detailed lists of Japanese merchant and capital ships, or to the specific weapons load out of each U.S. submarine in WWII, it is all there. The makers of this game did not cut any corners. They did their homework and tried, I think successfully, to incorporate significant historical facts into the gameplay.

Second, a risk/reward based gameplay experience. Every decision you make — from the torpedoes you use to deciding if you want to attack submerged and at close or long distance — incurs risk.  There are numerous tradeoffs. For instance, you can attack from long distance submerged, but you suffer a roll modifier and risk not hitting your target. Or, you can be aggressive, and attack at close range, surfaced at night, which may increase your chance of hit but also increase your chance of detection. It just depends.  

Finally, simple game rules.  Complicated games are no fun to play. As a player, I don’t want to spend 10 minutes looking up rule after rule in a rulebook the size of a encyclopedia. In Silent Victory,  the designers have done us a favor. The rules are clearly written and extensive, and after a single read through I referred to them occasionally. But more important, the combat mat has the dice roll encounter procedures printed on it, all within easy view. Also, the other mats all have reference numbers and clearly identify which dice should be rolled for what effects. It is all right there on the mats. This makes for a fun, smooth playing experience. And finally, if I were add another reason why this game is worth your money, it is the game’s replay value. You can conduct numerous patrols and no two patrols will ever be the same.

Silent Victory is a fun naval wargame that will appeal to the novice or expert gamer – and maybe you’ll learn something along the way.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a staff officer at the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The opinions here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.