Category Archives: Wargames

Being “Red”: The Challenge of Taking the Soviet Side in War Games at the Naval War College, Pt. 2

The following article originally appeared in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It is republished in two parts. Read Part One here.

By David Alan Rosenberg

In 1981, the creation of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies further encouraged the shift from using war gaming primarily as a training tool toward using it for the analysis and development of strategy. The new center incorporated the old war gaming center, along with the Center for Advanced Research, the Naval War College Press, and the new Strategic Studies Group, made up of front-running Navy and Marine officers who were chosen by and reported directly to the Chief of Naval Operations. The center was to serve as a vehicle for the development and dissemination of naval strategy or, more accurately, to define the Navy’s place in national strategy.

The establishment of the new center meant greater responsibilities for the NFOIO detachment. To meet the challenge, the size of the detachment was increased. As of 1984, it was composed of seven naval officers, two civilian analysts, and two enlisted personnel for office and library support. Reflecting its increased capability, the detachment was assigned the additional task of providing the director of the new Center for Naval Warfare Studies and the Strategic Studies Group with intelligence support and background information “‘on matters pertaining to Soviet strategy and doctrine.’’ An eighth officer was added to the now redesignated Navy Operational Intelligence Center (NAVOPINCEN) detachment in 1986.

Presenting the Soviet side in war gaming and analysis, whether for the purpose of training officers or with the intention of shaping naval and national strategy, is a large, intricate, and time-consuming task. The 1986-1987 war gaming schedule listed more than 50 separate games or exercises. In addition, gaming personnel and NAVOPINCEN detachment members participated in training sessions and seminars related to war gaming. Since completion of the new enhanced naval war gaming computer system in early 1987, it has become possible for more and more games to be played at remote sites, including fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Pearl Harbor, and even London. This will decrease the amount of travel required of fleet personnel to Newport, allowing state of- the-art Navy war gaming to reach more commands. However, War Gaming Department and NAVOPINCEN detachment members have found that such remote gaming increases rather than decreases their workload because pregame preparations usually require as much, if not more, travel and advance planning as games played solely in Sims Hall.

Fewer than 40 percent of the games played at Newport are sponsored by the Naval War College, and an even smaller percentage are used purely for the instruction of War College students. The game sponsors today are active operational commanders and strategic planners in Washington. Among the game sponsors for 1986-1987 were the Commanders of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets and U.S. Naval Forces Europe; the Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic; the NATO Strike Fleet Atlantic; the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic; the U.S. Seventh Fleet; Submarine Group Two in New London; and the Strategic Concepts Branch and the Director of Naval Warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The game sponsor sets the parameters of the simulation to be played, including the general questions that need to be explored and the range of specific tactical and strategic issues that should be included during game play. Each one of these games has a War Gaming Department staff mentor assigned to it as a scenario design representative, and a NAVOPINCEN detachment member assigned as a representative to develop ways for the opposition to be played.10

The NAVOPINCEN detachment’s approach to playing the opposition in war games is more of an art than a science. The detachment draws heavily on data from the Washington intelligence community, including the Navy Operational Intelligence Center in Suitland, Maryland, the rest of the Naval Intelligence Community, plus the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency. The Operational Intelligence Center provides data on current Soviet operations and exercise activity, while National Intelligence Estimates and Soviet open-source literature provide reference points for building scenarios and conducting the games. In games involving joint action, the detachment can call upon the services of two Army Fellows assigned to Newport for two year tours to assist the War Gaming Department in getting ground operations correct. One of the Army Fellows is a military intelligence officer; the other is a combat arms professional. In addition, the NAVOPINCEN detachment regularly calls upon the U.S. Air Force “Checkmate” office and other Air Force commands for answers to questions regarding the simulation of Soviet air operations.

Before a game begins, NAVOPINCEN detachment members engage in extensive preparations. They work with the game sponsor and the War Gaming Department design representative in setting up scenarios that are realistic and yet tailored to facilitate analysis of the issues and courses of action the sponsor is concerned about testing. Opposing simulation forces are built up, computer databases prepared, and scenarios worked and reworked to fit the requirements of the game. By the time the players arrive and the game begins, much of the work of playing or being “Red” has been completed.

It is never possible to achieve complete accuracy and fidelity in playing the opposition. War games are by their nature only approximations of combat situations. Furthermore, intelligence is never perfect, and questions inevitably arise for which there are no answers. The problem of incomplete intelligence is compounded by the pressures of game play. When the NAVOPINCEN detachment is presented with an unexpected choice, it may be possible to come up with relevant data by doing a quick search of the literature or querying intelligence community sources. Sometimes, to expedite the game, the detachment is forced to fall back on the cumulative experience of its members in making a “best military judgment” regarding likely courses of Soviet action. In such instances detachment members are nagged by the thought that the answer might have been found if only there had been time to look for it, and the choice that was made may not have been consistent with the best possible information. The professional ‘Red’ team players find it sobering to consider that “rightly or wrongly, we are leaving high-ranking military officers with a certain perception of how Red is going to fight,” although every decision is not backed by hard data.11

This problem is further compounded when intelligence is available but cannot be used without violating security. The NAVOPINCEN team makes use of even the most sensitive information in preparing its scenarios, but once play begins, caution is in order since only a few of the games are classified above the “Secret” level. Detachment members will utilize their knowledge of highly classified information during gameplay only if this can be done without revealing the source. It may be necessary on occasion to play the Soviet side with less than total fidelity and precision in order to avoid Compromising critical intelligence sources.

The NAVOPINCEN detachment also faces another more mundane, but not insignificant, constraint on how realistically it can portray Soviet forces. The U.S. side in any given game will always have the use of far more computer terminals than the Soviet side. This is a logical arrangement since U.S. choices, not Soviet ones, are the focus of the game. Nevertheless, it does mean that the detachment is not able to present the actions of Soviet forces in full detail. For example, it is particularly difficult to present Soviet air operations on a full scale basis with this constraint. The shortage of control terminals has occasionally turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The fewer terminals “Red” has available, the fewer dedicated “Red” personnel are needed to man them. In a sense, the NAVOPINCEN detachment gamers face fewer command, control, and communication problems this way. Still, the lack of a fully staffed “Red” side means that those on the U.S. side may not have as complete a simulated picture as possible of the array of threats they would be facing in a real war.

There are also some larger questions about the design and use of the war games which are of concern to those who have served with or played against the NAVOPINCEN detachment. These are not specific constraints on how accurately the Soviets can be portrayed, but more general problems that are particularly apparent to those charged with being “Red.”

First, it should be noted that not all war games are alike. Some have a comparatively narrow tactical focus, i.e., examining military issues and possible options for the use of set numbers and types of forces to resolve certain specific regional problems. Others are strategic in orientation, looking at a large number of issues over a variety of regions and with a great array of military forces. These are more scenario and personality dependent; the designers and players have greater latitude in making decisions because of the complexity inherent in large numbers of variables. Both tactical and strategic games have their uses. Tactical games are most useful in assessing, through computer modeling, the technical boundaries and general parameters of military options. Strategic games are best characterized as politico military simulations whereby the military interaction is dependent on game-oriented political decisions rather than on more narrow technical and military considerations. They stimulate creative strategic thinking and are most useful in giving the players an opportunity to role-play decision making in wartime and crisis situations.12

Both strategic and tactical games often begin with a scenario that is strategically realistic but politically improbable at best. This inconsistency arises because, in order to mount a game, it is necessary to posit an outbreak of hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States, something both nations are, in fact, anxious to avoid. Since the United States never acts as the aggressor in war games, it is often necessary to “force” the Soviet Union to engage in open hostilities without adequately explaining its reasons for doing so.

A related problem revolves around the question of the “first salvo.” While the large, strategic global war games begin in peacetime or a crisis, many smaller games (particularly tactical exercises) open after war has actually started. To focus on naval engagements that permit room for American commanders to take the initiative, it is often necessary to skip over the Soviet attack that signaled the outbreak of the war and zero in on the U.S. response. The impact of the initial attack is merely written into the background scenario. It is never described as so devastating as to preclude response, since that would abort the game before it had begun. The Soviet Union, however, attaches great strategic importance to the first salvo and is likely to make it as devastating as possible. Skipping over this phase of the conflict could easily leave the wrong impression with those playing the game.

Navy and NAVOPINCEN detachment concerns about the battle of the first salvo have not been ignored at Newport. A number of specific games have been designed to focus on this phase of the conflict, and the experience gained from them has made the U.S. Navy much smarter about the first salvo challenge and, theoretically at least, more capable of dealing with it, both in simulation and real life. Real war is always uncertain, however, and students and officers who begin play in war games without experiencing and countering the first salvo need to be constantly aware that there is another dimension to the problem that they have missed, and about which they cannot become complacent.

War games are, of course, only best approximations of operational reality. Even discounting the problem of a summary initial scenario, the time frame in which war games are played does not permit a natural unfolding of events. Most war games last only a matter of hours, days, or, at the very most, weeks. Although it is possible to telescope time to simulate a somewhat longer period, it is impossible to game a prolonged conflict realistically under these conditions. The pressure of artificial time constraints distorts the interaction between the opposing sides and may result in unrealistic decision making.

Despite the best efforts of the War Gaming Department and the NAVOPINCEN detachment to make the scenarios, simulations, and interactions realistic, war games are competitive exercises in which the will to win is often stronger than the desire to learn. This is particularly true when those playing are knowledgeable operators who have come to Newport to test tactical concepts. They often have both a good grasp of the “Blue” side and a sophisticated understanding of the Soviet side; further, they have experience in playing war games against the NAVOPINCEN opposition teams at the war gaming center. Reality can be sacrificed when players become too familiar with the game. Those who have had experience with how the NAVOPINCEN detachment plays the opposition can often begin to take that experience into account in making subsequent war game decisions. They will become increasingly proficient at playing the gamers, rather than the game.

This is not necessarily a negative aspect. The war gaming program at Newport is intended to give players experience in thinking about how the Soviet Union does things so that they will not be surprised in real life. To the extent that “Blue” understands what ‘‘Red” is likely to do (even if only as a result of playing the gamers, not the opposition they represent), the purpose of the gaming experience will be served. It is imperative, however, that the “Blue”’ gamers be aware that tactics and techniques confirmed through this sort of game play may not be so validated in a real engagement.

One important way to avoid such misplaced lessons is for “Red” to avoid playing his side of the games so consistently as to become predictable. It may be difficult to introduce inconsistency deliberately, while still being faithful to the intelligence that has been gathered and analyzed so painstakingly over time. But the realities of naval (or any other kind of) warfare make it necessary, however, to think through to the unexpected on the game floor rather than at sea. With the best recent intelligence providing a solid base on which to build, the challenge for the “Red” war gamers is to find ways of simulating not just what we think “Red” would do in the event of war, but also what “Red” could do. This requires additional attention to nuance and detail, as well as increased dedication to the already difficult job of thinking “Red.”

Finally, it must always be remembered that war games are not surrogate history. The conflict they simulate did not actually happen. The lessons they teach are not lessons of history. Outcomes will vary even if the same game with the same scenario and the same players is repeated. Neither the scenario nor the outcome of any particular game is likely to be replicated in the real world. War gaming can be used legitimately to raise questions and identify potential problems, but beyond this it must be treated with caution. Those who cite the outcomes of war games as evidence in support of a particular theory or strategy may well be building a house on sand.

This is especially true when the conclusions (war gamers prefer the terms “insight” and ‘”issues”) being drawn from the games focus on the actions taken by the opposition. The members of the NAVOPINCEN detachment do their job well and faithfully, but they can only make educated guesses as to what the Soviet Union might or might not choose to do in combat. To conclude that the Soviet Union is likely to respond to a particular situation in a certain way because of what happened in a war game is to distort and misuse the war gaming concept.

During the past century, war gaming has proved itself a valuable tool in preparing officers for combat and strategic decision making. Although students at the Naval War College have less exposure to war gaming today than they did in the interwar period, it is likely to remain an important element in the curriculum.

The need for accurate intelligence about probable opponents has been recognized as a critical element of war gaming since the interwar period. The naval intelligence community currently plays a crucial role in war gaming at the Naval War College, providing systematic, detailed information about Soviet forces and doctrine during both the design and the implementation of the games, and seeking to “think Red” in order to give players a consistent, credible opponent.

Despite the constraints they face, the officers and analysts of the NAVOPINCEN detachment have every reason to be proud of their record. By playing a credible Soviet opponent, they have injected a measure of realism into war games that otherwise might be exercises in mirror imaging or even wishful thinking. Their professionalism generates the kind of challenge against which those engaged in war gaming can truly test their skills and their strategies.

Nevertheless, the current popularity of war gaming raises questions that deserve careful consideration. If war games are not surrogate history, just what role can and should they play in the development of strategy? To a large extent it comes down to the experience of each individual in the game. Just as in strategic planning, where it is not the plan but the planner who is important for the future, so too in war gaming, it is the gamer not the game. To the extent that individuals expand and test their minds in playing against a credible opposition and use that experience to inform (but not dictate) their actions and plans, the investment made in manpower, hardware, and money at Sims Hall at the Naval War College will continue to be a sound one.

David Alan Rosenberg is a Naval Reserve officer assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Analysis 0166 Reserve unit based at Naval Air Facility, Washington, D.C. As a civilian, he is a professor in the Strategy Department at the Naval War College.


10. Naval War College War Gaming Department, Operations Division, War Gaming Schedule Update, 1986-1987, 15 August 1986.

11. Robert Marshall, “Thinking Red Wargaming: Naval Issues,” unclassified brief prepared for a 1985 National Defense University War Gaming Center Conference, copy courtesy Commander Marshall,

12. For a general discussion of contemporary war gaming, its varieties, and its usefulness to planners and policymakers, see the forum on “Political and Military Gaming” with articles by Lincoln Bloomfield, Paul Bracken, Garry D. Brewer, and Lloyd H. Hoffman, Jr., in ORBIS, Winter 1984, pp. 783-822. Hoffman’s article on “Defense War Gaming,” pp. 812-822, surveys the various U.S. Government gaming organizations and types of games played.

Featured Image: A U.S. Navy commander talks with a Soviet navy captain second rank as they walk along the pier past the Soviet guided missile destroyer Boyevay. Three ships of the Soviet Pacific Fleet are in San Diego for a five-day goodwill visit. (U.S. National Archives/Scene Camera Operator: PH2 Bill Gazza)

Being “Red”: The Challenge of Taking the Soviet Side in War Games at the Naval War College, Pt. 1

The following article originally appeared in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. It will be republished in two parts. Read it in its original form here.

By David Alan Rosenberg

Over four decades have passed since the U.S. Navy was last locked in combat at sea with a determined and capable oceangoing enemy. During those years, more than two generations of American naval technology have come and gone, as have the two generations of U.S. naval officers trained to operate and command that technology in combat. During those same four decades, the once minor Soviet Navy has emerged in both quality and quantity as a formidable seagoing force.

In the absence of actual hostilities between the United States and the U.S.S.R., an eventuality the United States has actively sought to deter, there has been no opportunity for the Navy to test its officers and its technology against the Soviet threat under wartime conditions. As the World War II reality of sustained combat at sea fades into distant memory, alternative means of measuring the U.S. Navy’s strategic and tactical readiness to fight a full-scale naval war have taken on increasing importance in the development of sound American maritime strategy.

Following the approaches established in the U.S. Navy of the 1920s and 1930s, two complementary techniques for measuring strategic readiness have emerged over these past 40 years. The first of these is a massive program of both regularly scheduled and special fleet exercises involving both U.S. and allied navies. Such exercises have their antecedents in the twenty-one fleet problems conducted on a more or less annual basis by the concentrated U.S. Fleet between 1922 and 1940. As mounted today, these exercises are designed to test interoperability, tactics, and operational capability in various regions, in all types of seasons and weather, against a wide range of possible combat scenarios. More than 100 major exercises involving actual forces afloat took place in 1985 and another 90 in 1986.1

The second approach is that of war gaming. The War Gaming Department of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island has emerged as the major institution where the U.S. Navy can test its strategic concepts and tactical and operational doctrine in a dynamic atmosphere of simulated battles and campaigns. Whereas during exercises commanders are restricted from firing a shot in anger against the U.S. and allied forces simulating the enemy, at Sims Hall in Newport, a full range of ordnance may be employed through the use of computer models of combat engagements and logistics generation. Experienced and prospective naval commanders are given the opportunity to make combat decisions and observe outcomes, and subsequently review their choices, explore alternatives, analyze the results, and draw lessons from the experience.

War gaming was introduced at the Naval War College a century ago. In the fall of 1886, two years after the War College opened, Lieutenant William McCarty Little, U.S. Navy (Retired) presented a lecture on “Colomb’s Naval Duel Game”—a simulation of two-ship combat. By 1894, gaming was a standard part of the course of instruction. It was conducted at three levels— single ship combat, tactical fleet formations and actions, and a strategic game simulating an entire war—as a means of teaching students to apply broad principles to specific situations. It was also useful in preparing plans and tactical formations for the fleet’s annual war problem.”2

Gaming became increasingly important in succeeding decades. In the interwar years, as the battles and campaigns of World War I were studied and the future shape of naval warfare examined, war gaming became a central element of the War College curriculum. An inexpensive (if imperfect) alternative to full-scale fleet exercises—an important consideration given the 1920s economy and 1930s austerity—the games were fought with increasing frequency in Luce Hall and, after 1934, on the checkerboard floor of Pringle Hall. In 1932, a standard game schedule was established which called for 304 of the 326 days in the academic year to be devoted to tactical and strategic exercises, tactical operations and quick decisions problems, critiques of gaming experiences, and a Battle of Jutland Board Maneuver.

Gaming played an important role in shaping the Navy’s strategic thinking and planning during the interwar period. While the Battle of Jutland exercise was used primarily as a training tool for gaining familiarity with gaming procedures and infusing the gamers with enthusiasm by offering the opportunity to refight the famous but inconclusive 1916 battle, the war games that pitted the U.S. Navy against the Japanese Navy, code-named “‘Orange,” served a more specific purpose. They cast doubt on the assumption that the U.S. Navy could easily defeat the Japanese in the Pacific by virtue of numerical superiority. By the early 1930s, as intelligence improved, awareness of logistical problems increased, and as the games grew more sophisticated, it became apparent that the U.S. Navy might well lose. During the rest of the decade, war gaming helped shape U.S. naval strategy, particularly by preparing those who would become the high command, to meet the challenges that lay ahead.3

One important element of gaming, even during the interwar years, was intelligence. Beginning in 1929, the War College maintained an intelligence department as an integral part of its institutional structure. The actual work of the department remains something of a mystery. An examination of the college staff rosters from 1929 through Pearl Harbor reveals that at least one captain and two to five commanders or lieutenant commanders, and even an occasional Army and Marine lieutenant colonel were assigned to the department along with the college’s professor of international law, G.G. Wilson, who was also on the faculty of Harvard University. Unlike the Department(s) of Operations, Strategy, and Tactics (actual departmental organization varied from year to year), which prepared the college curriculum and set the standards for gaming, the Intelligence Department appears to have been the research arm of the college, providing information on U.S. and foreign navies to support the curriculum, including gaming.

The kind and amount of information the Intelligence Department provided to students and faculty is not clear from War College archives. Three things are known, however. First, modern intelligence gathering was a factor in establishing the tactical situation for the game: mock radio intelligence intercepts were provided to ‘“Blue” and “Orange” teams as they prepared for combat. Second, there was no dedicated “Orange” team: students played both sides of the conflict. Finally, the absence of a dedicated ‘‘Orange”’ team, with its own unique approach to warfighting, reflected an assumption that the opposing navies were not only similar in force structure and weapons systems, but would rely on similar tactics. The theory of naval warfare at the time centered on the decisive fleet action, primarily involving battleships in a battleline engagement. Within this context, there appeared to be only a finite number of possible permutations in tactics or variations in military philosophy.

The U.S. Navy was in fact “reading the Japanese mail” during the 1920s and 1930s through radio intelligence code breaking, and used information gleaned from broken naval codes to ascertain the size and readiness of the Japanese Fleet. The full story of that intelligence effort has yet to be declassified, much less written, but based on information that is currently available, intelligence on the Japanese tactical and operational approach to war does not appear to have been a major concern of those in the Navy’s leadership who directed the collection and use of the “secrets from the ether” as such intercepts were called. It is possible that such information was collected and analyzed but was considered too sensitive for dissemination, In any event, it was not made available to either the fleet or to the War College.4

During the interwar years, the Naval War College was the pinnacle of the Navy’s professional education. As of 7 December 1941, every active duty flag officer qualified to command at sea, save one, was a War College graduate. That leadership, shaped by a curriculum centered on war gaming, had already anticipated, through gaming experience, most of the strategic challenges that World War II in the Pacific would present. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’ comment that the courses and war games at Newport in the 1920s were so thorough that “nothing that happened in the Pacific [during World War II] was strange or unexpected’’ has been widely quoted. But Nimitz was referring to overall strategy and the “fantastic logistic efforts required to support the operations of the war.’’5 The inattention to enemy tactics and operational practices in the interwar war games contributed to the startling and devastating tactical surprises the Japanese were able to inflict on the U.S. Navy in a series of battles from Pearl Harbor through the Guadalcanal Campaign in 1941-1943. The lesson of this experience—not to assume that an enemy’s tactics and strategy will mirror one’s own—was paid for dearly.

War gaming suffered something of a decline at the Naval War College after World War II. The Navy perceived its mission in the 1950s in terms of readiness to conduct forward defense, power projection ashore, and sea control—concepts that did not lend themselves readily to then existing techniques of manual war gaming. The most likely enemy of the United States—the U.S.S.R.—was not nearly so formidable a seagoing power as the Japanese had been in the interwar period. In the absence of a real naval opponent who could be cast in the “Orange” role, it was difficult to generate scenarios that were as credible or compelling as those of the 1930s. In 1958, the old game board in Pringle Hall, where warship models had been maneuvered by hand, was replaced by the Navy’s first war gaming computer, the Navy Electronic Warfare Simulator (NEWS), which had been under development since 1945. The following year a separate war gaming department was established in Sims Hall. In contrast to the interwar period, however, the NEWS was used for only 63 days of war gaming in 1965, including War College games, and Atlantic Fleet and Destroyer School training exercises.6

In the late 1960s, plans were laid for replacing the NEWS with a new and updated computerized war gaming center. In 1972, War College President Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner introduced a variety of reforms in the college curriculum. Among his many ideas, Turner disapproved of the way in which naval war games had been played at the college up to that time. He felt that in the past they had overemphasized the writing of complex operation orders and should be used more effectively as a teaching tool in educating students in the decision making process. Turner ordered extensive modifications in the new computer equipment for this purpose. He wanted every student, not just the select few, to have the opportunity to play an admiral’s role in a war game. While modifying the computer equipment for this purpose, Turner also encouraged the development of tabletop games created by Professor Jacques Naar, the first occupant of the McCarty Little Chair of Gaming and Research Technique.

It was the emergence of the Soviet Navy as a serious oceangoing challenge, however, which was primarily responsible for a resurgence of war gaming at the Naval War College. By the mid-1970s it had become apparent that the Soviet Navy would be a formidable opponent. War gaming would be a valuable tool for testing U.S. strategy, tactics, and capabilities against this potential threat, but only if the opposition were portrayed in the games as realistically as possible. Just as detailed intelligence about Japanese capabilities had been a critical component of the interwar games, so detailed intelligence about the Soviet Union had become a critical element in the 1970s. This time, however, it was apparent that knowledge of capabilities was not enough. The Soviet approach to naval warfare was known to be fundamentally different from that of the United States. To achieve a degree of realism, it was necessary to use the best possible information on Soviet strategy, decision making, and tactical doctrine in designing and implementing the games.

To meet this need, the Naval War College called on the Navy Field Operational Intelligence Office (NFOIO). In April 1976 the NFOIO (which became the Navy Operational Intelligence Center in 1984) sent a detachment to Newport to provide a “more comprehensive and informed intelligence input, particularly in the area of Soviet naval tactics, force structure, and capabilities.” A ‘‘dedicated intelligence team,’’ composed initially of one captain with an intelligence specialty, one commander or lieutenant commander line officer with a warfare specialty and intelligence subspecialty, one civilian intelligence analyst, and a civilian secretary, was attached to the Center for War Gaming.

Their mission, as established by an agreement between the President of the Naval War College and the Director of Naval Intelligence, was to act as “‘a permanent, in-residence ‘Opposition Team’ in appropriate war games,” with responsibility for directing opposition play or supporting a designated opposition force commander. The unit would provide opposition force intelligence data for operational units played in the game; simulate play of appropriate opposition political echelons and military commands; and “provide intelligence support to the Center for War Gaming on all matters pertaining to Soviet naval operations and tactical doctrine,’’ including all source briefings on the “‘capabilities, limitations, historical trends, and current developments in the Soviet Navy.” In addition, the detachment would conduct independent research on the Soviet Navy, assist in the preparation of intelligence publications, and assist NFOIO in preparing tactical analyses.7

The establishment of the intelligence detachment at the Center for War Gaming reflected growing concern about the expansion of Soviet military power, the same concern that prompted other U.S. intelligence innovations such as the creation of a permanent Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during James Schlesinger’s tour as Secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975, and the 1976 Team B reassessment of National Intelligence Estimates. It was part of a broad national effort to become more vigorous and professional in assessing and confronting Soviet military capability. Not since the interwar period had the Navy treated war gaming and simulation so seriously.

The creation of a dedicated opposition team also marked an important change in the Navy’s philosophy of war gaming, For one thing, it was a giant swing of the pendulum away from a long-standing institutional bias toward “mirror imaging” the enemy during war games. Equally important, it was designed to counter the kind of personal competition fostered by older approaches to war gaming. Under the old system, the games often became merely tests of skill between Navy commanders assigned to the two opposing sides. It was a personal contest between real-life competitors in which the main objective was not to play the ‘‘Red” or “Blue” side realistically or even to explore tactical and strategic lessons, but simply to beat the opposition. The question of who won and who lost overshadowed everything else. By taking the “Red” side out of the hands of the students or visiting admirals who were utilizing the war-gaming facility, the emphasis was shifted to the learning experience offered by simulated strategic interaction and tactical exchange.

By the late 1970s, war gaming at Newport had become much more than a means of training students in decision making and tactics. The revised operations course created by retired Vice Admiral Thomas Weschler in 1977-1981 changed the focus of the games from the level of individual ships or small units to the fleet and task force level. The multi-week Global War Game was begun in the summer of 1979 to examine changing strategic, logistic, and tactical options for U.S. worldwide military operations. Originally intended primarily to occupy War College students who stayed in Newport over the summer break, this innovative, broad-ranging game soon took on a life of its own. In recent years, sizeable contingents of flag officers and civilian decision makers from Washington have come to Newport every summer to play in the most extensive simulation of general war staged in the United States.8

David Alan Rosenberg is a Naval Reserve officer assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Analysis 0166 Reserve unit based at Naval Air Facility, Washington, D.C. As a civilian, he is a professor in the Strategy Department at the Naval War College.


1. On current exercises, see Christopher C. Wright, “U.S. Naval Operations in 1985,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Review, May 1986, pp. 34-40ff; and “U.S. Naval Operations in 1986,” U.S, Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Review, May 1987, pp. 30-43ff. Interwar fleet problems are documented in the National Archives and Records Service microfilm publication M496, U.S. Fleet Problems, 1922-1941; their importance is discussed most recently in Thomas C, Hone and Mark David Mandeles, ‘Managerial Style of the Interwar Navy: A Reappraisal,” Naval War College Review, September-October 1980, pp. 88-101.

2. John B. Hattendorfet al., Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the U.S, Naval War College (Newport, R.1: Naval War College Press, 1984), pp. 24-25, 40-41; see also Francis J. McHugh, Fundamentals of Naval War Gaming (Newport, R.L: Naval War College, 1966), chap. 2.

3. Hattendorfet al., pp. 137-161; Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1949 (Newport, R.L: Naval War College Press, 1980), pp. 131-156; see also Michael Vlahos, “Wargaming, an Enforcer of Strategic Realism, 1919-1942,” Naval War College Review, March-April 1986, pp. 7-22; and Edward Miller’s forthcoming study of War Plan Orange for the Naval Institute Press.

4. The evolution of organization and personnel of the intelligence department is documented in U.S. Naval War College, Register of Officers, 1884-1977, Naval War College Archives, Newport, R.I., pp. 37-62; on radio intelligence code breaking and the work of the Office of Naval Intelligence in the interwar period, see the declassified Top Secret Ultra history by Laurence Safford, “A Brief History of Communications Intelligence in the United States,” SRH 149, Record Group 457, Modern Military Headquarters Branch, National Archives, Washington, D.C. This 22-page paper contains more detail on what was being read, when, and how it was used before World War II than any published source. On using simulated radio intercept messages, see Vlahos, The Blue Sword, pp. 136-139. The failure to consider Japanese tactics and training in war games is discussed by T.J. McKearney, “The Solomons Naval Campaign: A Paradigm for Surface Warships in Maritime Strategy,” Unpublished Student Research Paper, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.: September 1985, pp. 105-138.

5. E.B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1976), p. 136, contains the quote from Nimitz” letter to Vice Admiral Charles Melson. The quote also hangs in the lobby of the Naval War College War Gaming Center at Sims Hall.

6. Hattendorfet al., pp. 237-238; on NEWS, see McHugh, chap. 5.

7. Memorandum of Understanding between Rear Admiral B.R. Inman, U.S. Navy, Director of Naval Intelligence, and Vice Admiral J.J. LeBourgeois, U.S. Navy, President, Naval War College, Subject: NAVINTCOM Element at War Gaming Center, April 1976, from the files of the NAVOPINCEN Detachment, Naval War College, Newport, R.I.; on the Turner reforms, see Hattendorf et al., chap. 11, especially pp. 286-287.

8. Hattendorf et al., pp. 312-315.

Featured Image: Sailors on an American warship observe a Soviet Tarantul III class missile corvette underway. (U.S. National Archives/Scene Camera Operator: PH1 Scott Allen, USN)

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. 

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 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 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 This site serves as an introductory resource, similar to ConsimWorld. For computer wargames I would check out

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)