Category Archives: Wargames

Wargaming: A Tool for Naval Intelligence Analysis

By Ian Sundstrom

Intelligence is a key enabler of wargames conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense. Intelligence analysis provides the factual backbone of wargames, from orders-of-battle and weapons system capabilities to strategy. Intelligence analysts themselves routinely play the role of adversaries in so-called “red cells.” Often, however, wargame sponsors have specific training or analytic objectives that require deviations from the most likely or most realistic “red” courses of action. Intelligence analysts playing red must therefore guess at how the adversary might respond to unusual situations or deliberately make decisions they believe are inaccurate just to support the game’s purpose. This is a source of frequent frustration for analysts and the cause of numerous gripes about the “unrealistic” nature of wargames. Rather than decrying this, analysts should embrace this fact and use wargaming to improve their assessments.

Wargaming Is Distinct from Other Structured Analytic Techniques

Numerous structured analytic techniques have been developed to help intelligence analysts overcome their biases and improve their assessments. How is wargaming different and/or better than these techniques? Wargaming is unlike any other technique for its ability to put analysts in the adversary’s position and capture the interactive nature of warfare.

One common technique used to see the world from the adversary’s perspective is red team analysis. This technique involves analysts putting themselves in the adversary’s position and asking what factors influence its decision-making process and how it responds to different stimuli. In that way it is similar to the act of playing the red team in a wargame. Wargaming improves on red teaming by adding a thinking, reacting opponent, and repeating the process over the course of the game.

Wargaming also embodies the nature of warfare in a way that no other technique does. Wargaming captures the iterative interactions between the actors in a conflict. In this way it helps analysts see beyond the first order effects of any adversary course of action and identify how different actions might shape the future actions of the parties to a conflict. Wargaming also captures the sequencing of military operations in time and space. This helps illuminate constraints on military action that more abstract techniques do not.

Wargaming Can Enable Other Analytic Techniques

Wargaming can also enable the use of other analytic techniques. For example, wargaming can help check key assumptions. If an assessment depends upon an assumption that an adversary’s political leaders do not see war in their interests, analysts can put themselves in those leaders’ place in the context of a game and see if the assumption holds. When facing a thinking opponent on the other side of a wargame, that assumption might not seem quite as valid.

Wargaming can also increase the likelihood of capturing alternative assessments. If pressed, many analysts would reveal that they only consider alternative hypotheses at the end of their analytic process, contrary to best practices. Wargaming can help bring analysis of alternatives to the front of analysts’ minds because of its sequenced, iterative structure. Each turn in a wargame presents players with decision points, each of which can reveal plausible alternatives for consideration. Alongside these alternatives, wargaming can illuminate the indicators that would accompany an adversary’s choice of one course of action over another.

Each turn of a wargame further provides the context for a structured brainstorming session. The analyst or analysts on a team can employ the technique to identify the broadest range of possible actions an adversary might take and then consider which actions are supported by evidence, which are most likely, and which might be most dangerous to the United States.

Further, wargaming can help identify intelligence gaps. The key to developing valid analytic insights from wargaming is to try to bring intelligence information into the process. When facing an in-game decision, players should ask themselves “what intelligence reporting provides clues about how the target would react?” If there is no information available, a potential intelligence gap has revealed itself.

Wargaming Does Not Need to be Complicated

A common misconception of wargaming is that it requires complex computer programs or detailed map-and-counter systems with intricate rule sets. If it did, wargaming would not be well suited to the often fast-paced requirements of intelligence analysis. Fortunately, it does not. At its most basic level, wargaming requires no formal tools. It just requires players representing the various people or organizations under consideration and an umpire to decide the order and outcomes of actions. A slightly more sophisticated game could involve a map (perhaps simply taken down from the wall of a cubicle), pocket change used to represent various forces, and some simple rules to help adjudicate results. A wargame can easily be held in a conference room or clustered around a desk and completed in an hour or two. That may seem like a long time to commit to a “game,” but most analysts can tell horror stories about much longer meetings with less useful results.

Options for Increasing the Use of Wargaming in Naval Intelligence


Diversity amongst the naval intelligence analytic corps is key to avoiding blind spots and preventing groupthink. Important in building a diverse workforce is hiring analysts who have no military experience. This means, however, that naval intelligence leaders cannot assume these analysts have any particular knowledge of military operations. As part of new analyst training, wargaming can help improve their knowledge in a way that lectures and reading cannot by forcing analysts to engage with the factors that influence real-world military decisions, such as movement, fires, and logistics. Wargaming has already been implemented as a training and educational technique within the Department of the Navy and has been used in a limited scale within some components of the Defense Intelligence Enterprise, but its use could be expanded.

Day-to-day Analysis

Analysts can also add wargaming to the toolbox they use in their daily work. As noted earlier, wargaming does not need to be complicated. Small groups of analysts can gather around a map on a conference table and, with post-it notes and notepads, examine how a specific battle, campaign, or war would play out in a structured but dynamic way. The insights from that effort can then help guide collections or generate new questions for analysis.

Community Collaboration

On a larger scale, wargaming can be a key facilitator of improved collaboration with the broader intelligence community. Naval intelligence analysts develop networks of their peers and routinely coordinate their formal products across communities of interest. This is important, but the former is often ad hoc and personality driven, and the latter is too often fleeting. Large, cross-organizational wargames can bring analysts together for multiple days of in-depth wargaming, during which time they get to know one another, discuss existing intelligence reporting and outstanding intelligence gaps, and explore various avenues for analysis. The experience can help foster deep and long-lasting relationships across organizations.

The Time is Ripe for Expanding Wargaming’s Role

Under guidance issued by the current Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, wargaming’s time seems to have arrived in the Department of the Navy. Wargaming has been widely employed as a tool to train Sailors and Marines and develop new concepts of operations for naval forces. It should also be used by naval intelligence professionals to improve their analysis. Wargaming is a unique tool that can help reveal potential adversary courses of action and facilitate the use of other analytic techniques. It is time to add it to the analysts’ toolbox.

Ian Sundstrom is an intelligence analyst at the Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center. He is also a reservist at Naval History and Heritage Command and previously served on active duty as a Surface Warfare Officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured image: March 19, 2018 – U.S. Naval War College (NWC) students participate in a learning game beta test run by NWC’s Joint Military Operations and Wargaming departments. The premise of the tabletop game was based on the Battle of Leyte Gulf during World War II. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jess Lewis/released)

The Shores of Tripoli: Waging the First Barbary War

By Caitlyn Leong and Ens. Brandon Bridges, USN

The Shores of Tripoli (SoT) is a one-to-two-player card-driven wargame by designer Kevin Bertram and Fort Circle games. SoT presents players with the opportunity to make strategic choices on behalf of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps or the pirates of Tripoli during the First Barbary War. Our review focuses on the two-player game experience and we outline the game components, basic rules, and our thoughts on the value of the game as both a wargame and a means of learning history. While not heavily focused on the tactics or international politics of the First Barbary War, SoT accurately captures the high-level strategic decisions and asymmetries of the actual conflict, allowing players to develop insights that are relevant to history and to contemporary conflict dynamics. Overall, SoT is an excellent game for those who are interested in the First Barbary War, and both new and experienced wargamers. 

Game Components 

The Shores of Tripoli arrives as a boxed set, with high-quality wood components, card decks for the American and Tripolitan player, a full-color game map, and a bag of twenty-four six-sided dice. The box also contains a historical supplement with designer’s notes and a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 letter to Yusuf Qaramanli, the pasha of Tripoli. 

The Shores of Tripoli game components. (Photo by the authors.)

The large three-masted ships represent frigates. The blue frigates represent the U.S. Navy, the red frigates are Tripolitan, and the two yellow frigates represent the Swedish Navy, which had been engaged in conflict with Tripoli since the late 1790s. The smaller single-masted vessels represent American gunboats (blue) and pirate corsairs (red and orange). The orange corsairs represent the pirate forces of the Tripolitan allies in Algiers, Tangier, and Tunis. Ground units are represented by wooden cubes, blue for U.S. Marine Corps, white for Arab infantry that fought alongside the U.S., and red for Tripolitan infantry. The twelve gold coins represent tribute and stolen treasure that the Tripolitan player can attempt to win throughout the game. 

The map has three different types of playable areas. The color-coded circles represent the nine harbors in the region. The colors indicate whether the harbor is friendly for the Americans or the Tripolitans, although they can peacefully coexist in Gibraltar. The lightly-shaded semicircles outside of five of the harbors represent patrol zones, which American frigates can patrol to try and prevent pirate corsairs from leaving the harbor. Everything outside of the harbors and patrol zones is the open sea, where the corsairs may engage in piracy against merchant ships that are not physically represented in the game.

The game map for The Shores of Tripoli. (Photo by the authors.)

At the bottom of the map, a turn tracker marks the year and the season. The game begins in the spring of 1801. The upper right corner of the map also features a designated supply area where extra American and Tripolitan pieces, along with their allies’ pieces may be stored for ease of access during gameplay. 

 Victory Conditions and Combat Adjudication

SoT offers multiple paths to victory for both the American and Tripolitan players. The asymmetries between these objectives make for very engaging gameplay. The American player wins by either forcing the Tripolitan player to sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity (1805 or later) if certain conditions are met, or by capturing Tripoli, which requires defeating both the Tripolitan pirate fleet and infantry. The Tripolitan player has three paths to victory. First, they can sink a total of four American frigates, forcing the Americans to acquiesce on the basis of having lost too much of their nascent fleet. Alternatively, Tripolitan corsairs and their allies in Tunis, Algiers, and Tangier can win by acquiring twelve gold coins, reflecting their ability to prey on Mediterranean trade successfully. Finally, if the Tripolitans can defeat and eliminate Hamet’s Army (the American ground force), they win. If neither player has achieved victory before 1806, the game ends in a draw. 

SoT features two types of combat: naval and ground. In both types of combat, the results are adjudicated by simple dice rolls, which, regardless of the apparent strength of the attacking force, can leave a lot to chance. The American player also has the option to conduct a naval bombardment of enemy infantry. Regardless of the type of combat, players roll dice based on their units’ strength and can modify these rolls for better results using cards. 

The Two-Player Game Experience 

In order to thoroughly test the game’s iterability and the likelihood of in-game events, we played the two-player version of SoT twelve times before writing this review. We noted on our first playthrough that SoT has a very low barrier to entry in terms of learning the rules and understanding the game’s dynamics. This is especially important if one is new to wargaming or wants to play with someone who is. 

Game set-up is fairly simple and outlined clearly in the rulebook. Each player gets event cards that allow them to take certain actions during the game and draws a hand of eight cards from their deck. At the start of each subsequent year, players will draw cards from the deck and discard excess cards from their hand, if necessary. One card must be played per season by each player. 

For the first game, we recommend being very slow in assessing your hand and your options and making sure to move the season tracker. When we tried to move too quickly in our first few games, we each lost track of the season and missed some critical moves made by our opponent. That said, we never had a game last longer than an hour, so SoT is a great game to play if you want minimal setup and quick play. 

Our games made it clear that players must balance competing strategic objectives based on the cards they draw and the current year and season. Some cards can only be played after a certain year or season has passed, particularly the American victory condition cards. Some cards can also be stacked with each other to make their effects stronger or modify combat but using certain cards may permanently remove them from the game. Consequently, successful players must choose their path to victory and identify the cards that they will need to achieve that victory relatively early in the game.

We found that as we gained more experience with the game, we became better at planning our hands and playing the right cards together to achieve certain effects or strategic objectives. This also made the game more challenging, since each of us was more familiar with the other player’s deck and strategic choices. However, we did not have a game that ended in a draw. In our testing of the game, we found that the Tripolitan player is most likely to win by amassing the requisite twelve gold coins, while the American is most likely to win by assaulting Tripoli. 

While much of the game’s progression towards victory depends on a player’s hand, much also depends on the roll of the dice. As previously mentioned, strategies that may work in other games, such as massing forces or stacking modifying cards in one final climactic battle may not be enough to win SoT. In one game the entirety of the American Navy and Hamet’s Army (supported by extra Arab infantry) assaulted Tripoli, but lost four frigates to the Tripolitans, resulting in a last-minute Tripolitan victory. 

Assault on Tripoli: The ill-fated American attack on Tripoli resulted in a Tripolitan victory. (Photo by the authors.)

We also had several games where the Tripolitans reached twelve gold coins just before the American player could play the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1805. While this can be incredibly frustrating if it happens routinely, (we did play the game twelve times in fairly short order), we felt that this contributed to the opportunity to explore counterfactuals through SoT

The History of the First Barbary War and the Historic Counterfactuals in Shores of Tripoli

Learning about conflict dynamics and history through wargames can reveal new insights and inform understandings of contemporary conflict dynamics. To that end, SoT offers players an opportunity to understand the challenges of strategic decision-making, particularly during a protracted and asymmetric conflict like the First Barbary War. The First Barbary War lasted from 1801 to 1805. The war began in 1801 when Tripoli formally declared war after years of tensions over the tributes required to ensure merchant ships’ safe passage in the Mediterranean. At the time of the war, the US had just started building the first six frigates of the U.S. Navy and had barely been acknowledged as a nation by the European powers.

By contrast, Tripoli and its allies, Tunis, Algiers, and Tangier, were semi-autonomous states belonging to the Ottoman Empire, whose pirate corsairs extorted merchant ships and effectively controlled trade throughout the Mediterranean. England and France had much greater ability to pay the requisite tribute to Tripoli to ensure their trade routes would remain safe, and the steady stream of payment allowed Tripoli to drive up the tribute prices to exorbitant sums that the Americans could ill afford. As a result, American merchant ships were frequently captured, and their crews were held for ransom or sold into slavery. The U.S. Navy was simply not large enough at the time to provide escorts for their merchant vessels, of which the Tripolitans took full advantage. 

As in history, some of the Tripolitan victory conditions in SoT involve making the cost of the war too high for the US in terms of their military assets or the ongoing costs associated with the loss of their merchant ships and ransoming their crews. Similarly, the American player can win by establishing the actual conditions that lead to the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1805 or by eliminating the Tripolitan fleet and ground forces in that same year or later. 

The cards in SoT highlight key events and elements of the conflict that affected the progression of the First Barbary War. In the game, these events may not occur exactly when they occurred in history, which adds a strong element of the historical counterfactual to gameplay in ways that may be fun for wargamers and casual players, but less so for hardline historians and naval tacticians.

What makes SoT interesting and fun to play over and over is the opportunity to test the counterfactual. For example, what if Tripoli and its allies were much more successful at sinking American frigates than they were during the war? Or what if Thomas Jefferson actually provided the necessary naval reinforcements for the intended 1805 assault on Tripoli? These counterfactual events lead to very different victory conditions than what occurred in history (the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1805), and present an opportunity for players to consider what elements of the conflict mattered at the strategic level and during what year or season they are most significant. 

Through our numerous playthroughs, we found that certain types of victory are more likely to occur for both the American and Tripolitan player, in ways that occasionally deviate from history. We found that a successful American assault on Tripoli was the most common ending in our twelve games. We debated whether this is a good thing and have concluded that if you are looking to learn more about the strategic dynamics of the First Barbary War and understand that SoT abstracts the majority of tactics, international relations, and logistical challenges that occurred during the war, you will likely get a lot of value out of SoT

Gamers looking for precisely-modeled combat and naval tactics may find that SoT is not the right game for them. However, SoT is a strong entry-level wargame that highlights the key historical events and figures of the war without being bogged down by the minutiae of history.  

Caitlyn Leong is a M.A. candidate and CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Fellow at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. She currently serves as the President of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society and previously served as Director of Simulations for The George Washington University’s Strategic Crisis Simulations. She specializes in wargaming, emerging technologies, and cybersecurity policy.

ENS Brandon Bridges is a prospective Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. His views are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. 

Featured Image: A painting of the burning of the captured USS Philadelphia by Stephen Decatur. Decatur led a small team aboard Philadelphia, which had been captured by the Tripolitans, and burned the ship rather than let it be used as a corsair vessel. (Painting by Niccolo Calyo from the collection of the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Va.)

Wargaming at the Academy: Why Invest in NHWL and Building A Culture of Wargaming 

By M. Scott Bond

The reemergence of peer competition suggests the naval services may not operate in the same manner or with the same freedom as they have in recent decades. In response, the Navy and Marine Corps are developing new operational concepts which embrace distributed warfare, which pushes command and capabilities down the organizational chain. As such, junior officers may need to learn combat decision-making skills earlier in their careers than their predecessors. Combat decision-making, like all critical thinking, requires time and practice to develop. As Sebastian Bae notes in the July 12th edition of the Preble Hall podcast, just as “reps and sets” in physical training provides the foundation for athletic performance, wargames provide mental reps and sets for military decisionmakers. Wargames are effective because, as Peter Perla and Ed McGrady note, they provide a space for students to make decisions and deal with the consequences. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Joint Chiefs have also recognized wargaming’s educational value by designating it a leadership development tool. Yet, the professional military education (PME) pipeline only has so much compressibility. As such, there is a growing demand to teach junior officers the basics of combat decision-making. The Naval Academy can try to meet this need by leveraging its nascent Naval History Wargaming Laboratory (NHWL) to give midshipmen the opportunity to think through tough tactical problems before the lives of Sailors and Marines are on the line.

Some may argue that, despite demand signals, classroom constraints make wargaming a poor fit for the academy. It is true that classroom time and space constrains may limit game effectiveness Additionally, educators often must design, procure, execute, and adjudicate a game without any support to offset costs, in both time and money, or ensure quality. That said, these barriers to educational wargaming are not insurmountable. Jim Lacey and Philip Sabin have separately written about adding wargames to their seminars, and noted increased student preparation, participation, and comprehension of the subject matter as positive results. Institutions such as the Naval War College (NWC) or Army Command and General Staff College have mitigated the above constraints through funding trained wargaming staffs, effectively underwriting wargaming costs for educators. While it is true that the NHWL is already providing curricular and extracurricular wargames under its own funding, its capacity to expand may be limited. The NHWL’s current staff consists only of a part-time director and a part-time adjunct. This minimalist structure likely has little capacity to expand beyond this proof-of-concept stage and could be vulnerable to future personnel changes. The academy will need to invest more in the NHWL to reap the maximum benefits wargaming has to offer.

Equally important is creating a culture of wargaming. The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that make up academy culture play a critical role in setting priorities for midshipmen and educators. If academy culture does not value wargaming as a worthwhile educational tool, then the overall benefit to the academy will be limited. The NWC’s oft cited success during the interwar period was in part due to student and educators’ culture which placed a strong emphasis on wargaming. A similar trend can be found at other PME institutions with records of wargaming excellence. The NHWL and broader wargaming’s benefits may be limited without broader cultural buy-in from midshipmen and educators.

Options for Investment 

There are many ways the academy can invest into the NHWL and foster a culture of wargaming, each with its own costs and benefits. There are five options in particular which might maximize the academy’s return on investment while also fulfilling its mission

Option 1: Explore Creative Funding Options  

It is important to recognize the zero-sum nature of the academy’s budget. Top-down cuts to add funding to the NHWL may hazard budget fights, which could create inter-departmental tensions that undermine the lab’s effectiveness. While some reallocations may prove necessary, the academy could explore alternative funding. For example, the academy could choose to add a “Wargaming Lab” fee to the amount withheld from midshipmen pay, such as has been done for necessities like laundry and haircuts. Along similar lines, the academy could adopt a “pay to play” methodology, with departments paying a fee to the lab for access to game design and execution support. 

Another option is to mimic the success of USNA athletics. The Naval Academy Athletic Association (NAAA) is a 501c3 whose mission is to “promote, influence, and assist in financing the athletic contests of the midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy.” Navy athletics owes much of its success to the NAAA’s ability to secure funding for quality staff and facilities. The academy could set up a similar wargaming association to help find and generate funds for the NHWL, decreasing the need to adjust internal budgets. True, NAAA benefits from the high visibility of sporting events. Yet, the rise of e-sports seems to indicate that wargaming could have similar levels of visibility. 

Option 2: Leverage the NHWL to Incorporate Educational Games into other Subjects 

If the academy wishes to maximize its return on investment and foster a culture of wargaming, it could work with the lab to develop targeted wargames which augment current academic programs. Wargames have educational utility outside of combat decision-making. Educational research indicates that student information retention and comprehension increase when traditional classroom methods are augmented with educational games. As such, the NWHL could be leveraged not only to provide quality games directly to the students but also to assist educators in other departments in enhancing their own curricula. For example, the professional knowledge (or ‘ProKnow’) curricula could be augmented with targeted wargames for each warfare module. The NHWL’s inaugural wargame coincidentally coincided with the players’ surface warfare ProKnow module. While unplanned, most players found the opportunity to apply the professional knowledge to be a valuable experience. Other academic fields can equally benefit. For example, the University of the City of London’s Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture programs use a modified version of the game Harpoon to teach engineering trade-offs in warship design to naval architecture and maritime engineering students.  

Option 3: Embrace Distributed Gaming

COVID restrictions on gathering size have renewed interest in distributed wargaming. Distributed play through digital media, either via digitized tabletop games or combat simulations, may hold special value for the academy. Collocating enough people for enough time to play a manual wargame limits the possible number of iterations, and thereby constrains learning outcomes. Distributed wargames remove the need for collocation and reduce playtime by automating rules adjudication and thereby increase the amount of possible game iterations. Digital wargaming platforms such as OSD’s SWIFT, the open source VASSAL engine, or Command: Modern Operations (C:MO) could allow educators to assign games as homework. It should be noted that there seems to be little reason for the academy to accept tailored game development costs given the breadth of games within the Department of Defense wargaming ecosystem and across commercial platforms. Leveraging these games in assignments could be combined with a player-written analysis of game events and outcomes to leverage traditional educational techniques. Granting midshipmen access to these tools outside of assignments could also foster a culture of wargaming by allowing students to enhance their personal interest in their education.

Option 4: Teach Midshipmen How to Play

The NHWL has already added a wargame design course. This could be an important first step both for developing capable future officers and building a culture of wargaming on campus. Equally important is teaching students how to play wargames. A major hurdle for an analytical wargame’s referee team (or white cell) is shepherding non-gamers through the learning curve while also running the game. A course dedicated to introducing and playing DoD wargames, such as the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s Assassin’s Mace or NWC’s War at Sea, would not only give the mental reps and sets required to succeed in future naval operations, but also could equip students to use the same analytical tools that are already being used in the fleet. This effort might also strengthen the academy’s own connections with the fleet and help integrate it with the wider naval wargaming community

Option 5: Connect with the Greater Wargaming Community

The NHWL has already noted its desire to host inter-academy events. If this becomes a reality it could represent an important start to integrating with the wider wargaming community. Such a program could be expanded to include NROTC or international teams, perhaps in a similar fashion to the Army’s Ranger Challenge competition. Such a program could leverage existing competitive spirits to build interest in wargaming. The academies of several U.S. allies already include wargaming within their curricula, thus this could be an easy sell. Joint events using mixed teams could be used to build joint understanding and camaraderie between future combat commanders.  

Knowing the Limitations

Marcus Jones noted in the same Preble Hall podcast that wargames cannot teach the realities of combat. While wargaming helps prepare students to make the most of their own and their senior officer’s experiences by reinforcing the fundamentals, real-world experience and combat exercising is more likely the master educator. Neither can wargaming replace the time-tested educational techniques at the heart of the academy’s academic traditions. Rather, they complement and enhance each other. Rex Brynen pointed out in 2016 the benefits of educational area function of the games’ design, implementation, curriculum integration, and educational requirements. If any one of these factors is missing, the benefit of the game diminishes. The time and space constraints of the classroom also impose both opportunity costs and limits to game effectiveness. Balancing the expected game benefits against sacrificed lecture material or other teaching methods could be a critical step in safeguarding the academy’s investment.


It is important to keep in mind why wargaming and warfighting education at the academy seems necessary. The naval environment is undergoing systemic changes which have undermined the assumptions upon which the current officer warfighting educational pipeline is built. The Navy and Marine Corps’ new operational concepts could demand that officers be schooled in tactical and joint thinking much earlier in their careers. The days of officers slowly acquiring tactical and operational knowledge in preparation for command appear to be coming to an end. Rather, the fleet will need young officers ready and able to operate jointly in a rapid, lethal, and complex maritime warfighting environment. Creating such officers could necessitate pushing warfighting education down to more junior levels as early as possible.

The Naval History Department and Museum’s announced NHWL could give the academy a valuable new tool to meet this need. The maritime threat environment is changing, and the Navy and Marine Corps are evolving in stride. Military educators – including those at the academy – would do well to embrace this transformation.

M. Scott Bond is a Technical Analyst researching emerging warfare concepts and East Asia with the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation. He also services as the Junior Analyst Ambassador for the Military Operations Research Society’s Wargaming Community of Practice.

Featured Image: ANNAPOLIS, Md. (July 18, 2020) The United States Naval Academy holds an Oath of Office Ceremony for the members of the Class of 2024, Companies 16-30. (U.S. Navy photo by Stacy Godfrey/Released)

Revamping Wargaming Education for the U.S. Department of Defense

By Jeff Appleget, Jeff Kline, and Rob Burks


The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to educate generations of military officers on the skills of wargaming. Wargaming creates the environment in which uniformed leaders practice decision-making against an active, thinking adversary. Wargaming is also required by the Department of Defense’s planning process to create sound and executable plans, is inherent to designing new doctrine and operational concepts, and is a vital element in the cycle of research.1

For these reasons, military leaders must have the ability to create and conduct wargames. However, the current military education process does not impart this critical knowledge.


Ed McGrady, distinguished Center for Naval Analyses wargamer, opened a recent commentary on wargaming by saying, “There is a widespread misunderstanding of what wargaming is…” and we agree wholeheartedly. Too many in the Department of Defense believe wargames are computer-based combat simulations used to produce quantitative analyses, but they are not. Wargaming is about human decision-making. Joint Publication 5-0 Joint Operation Planning’s wargaming definition makes this clear: “Wargames are representations of conflict or competition in a synthetic environment, in which people make decisions and respond to the consequences of those decisions” (emphasis added).

Most defense wargaming practitioners recognize three purposes for wargames: educational, experiential, and analytic. Educational and experiential wargames are focused on the player. The primary output of these types of wargames is a better educated or experienced player. For example, success might lead to an officer who now knows how a new weapon system is employed or has experienced fighting against a threat in a different region of the world. There are usually no other ‘results’ to demonstrate the wargame’s value.

On the other hand, analytic wargames focus on producing findings and recommendations in response to a sponsor’s tasking. Therefore the product of these wargames is not player-focused but sponsor-focused. Planning wargames, as outlined in Joint Publication 5-0 (Step 4: Course of Action analysis and wargaming), are specific analytic wargames with the task of analyzing courses of action, which then inform the development of a plan. Other analytic wargaming activities include developing new concepts of operations, doctrine, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) for emerging and future technologies, and front-end wargaming for experimentation and exercises to ensure that these expensive endeavors are properly focused and can achieve a high return on investment. We can learn much about new technologies and concepts through wargaming without burning a penny’s worth of fuel.

Current Status

Department of Defense wargaming is at a crossroads. It seems self-evident that the Department of Defense should own the responsibility to improve its wargaming. While Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), educational institutions, and defense contractors may have roles to play in wargame improvement, only the Department of Defense can choose to lead and embrace a comprehensive end-to-end cycle of research construct. This construct includes wargaming, computer-based combat simulations, and other quantitative and qualitative analytic techniques that, when properly leveraged, provide quality decision support to the department’s leadership. It must begin by addressing the shortcomings in wargaming education.

The 2015 call to reinvigorate wargaming has inspired the reintroduction of wargaming into some service school classrooms. Hence, a portion of uniformed field grade officers have an appreciation for, and may have actually played, wargames. However, the inability of the Department of Defense’s uniformed members to design and conduct their own wargames still has not been addressed in professional military education. Today, the Department of Defense relies on FFRDCs, educational institutions, and defense contractors to design and conduct wargames on their behalf. While these organizations produce useful wargames, the sheer number of wargames that should be executed across the department cannot all be performed by these organizations—they simply do not have the capacity, nor does the department have the budget.

However, there is a far more fundamental problem on the department’s reliance on these organizations. This reliance is, in effect, outsourcing the intellectual underpinnings of the nation’s defense strategy, officer professional development, and the department’s acquisition process.

Wargaming should become an integral part of the military officer corps’ professional education. The skills required to design and conduct wargames go hand-in-hand with the skills required to plan and execute military operations. 

The lack of wargaming skills and experience in our field grade and senior officers should be a warning to the department’s leadership. Wargaming was once the primary venue for the exchange of ideas, debates on tactics and doctrine, the sharing of lessons learned from previous operations and experiences, and the operational and doctrinal education of junior officers.2 Now it has largely disappeared from officers’ professional development. The 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Planning Guidance states this concern very succinctly:

“In the context of training, wargaming needs to be used more broadly to fill what is arguably our greatest deficiency in the training and education of leaders: practice in decision-making against a thinking enemy. Again, this requirement is inherent in the nature of war. In modern military organizations, it is, along with the fear of violent death, precisely the element of real war that is hardest to replicate under peacetime conditions. Wargaming historically was invented to fill this gap, and we need to make far more aggressive use of it at all levels of training and education to give leaders the necessary ‘reps and sets’ in realistic combat decision-making.”

Phil Pournelle, Senior Operations Analyst and Game Designer at Group W, points out a 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission finding that the military struggles to “link objectives to operational concepts to capabilities to programs.” Linking of objectives to operational concepts to capabilities is basic military planning. Yet our combatant commands and joint task forces struggle to conduct the planning wargames that Joint Publication 5-0 requires.

According to Joint Publication 5-0, each course of action should be wargamed against the enemy’s most likely and most dangerous course of action for a given plan. Assuming a modest number of three friendly courses of action to analyze, that is a requirement for six wargames per plan. And every plan that has sat on a digital shelf for more than a year needs to be dusted off and wargamed again, as the facts and assumptions that underpinned the plan’s development 12-plus months ago have undoubtedly changed, often significantly.

Unfortunately, due to time, staff capability, and capacity constraints, at best there may be one wargame conducted per combatant commander’s plan: the commander’s favorite Course of Action against the enemy’s most likely Course of Action. Insufficient time is allotted to conduct the wargame, resulting in poor design, less thorough execution, and results that fail to illuminate the plan’s operational risks or propose contingencies. This lack of time inspires the quick application of seminar games that devolve into BOGGSATS – a Bunch of Guys and Gals Sitting Around a Table.

As recent commentary from Peter Perla, author of the seminal book The Art of Wargaming, and Phil Pournelle3 have pointed out, wargaming should also be an integral part of analysis, experimentation, exercises, and the broader cycle of research. Far too often this is not the case. Instead, the department relies on analysis methods such as cost-benefit analysis, capabilities-based assessments, and analysis of alternatives that provide technical rationales for procurement decisions. However, in the Department of Defense, these analyses must be tempered with a thinking adversary in mind. Our potential adversaries in the future are concurrently developing new doctrine and concepts, fielding new technologies and force structures, and procuring new systems that increase our risk or limit our military options. Wargaming is necessary to gain an appreciation for our competitors’ capabilities, options, and objectives.

Wargaming has always been an integral part of the Army’s analysis to support their department’s acquisition of new technology and weapons systems. Army analytic organizations, such as the Center for Army Analysis and the Training and Doctrine Command’s Analysis Center, integrated wargaming with their computer-based combat simulations to provide comprehensive qualitative and quantitative analysis to support key acquisition programs several decades ago. Both tools are still used together, productively, today.

This approach’s benefit is two-fold. First, the warfighters brought into the wargame’s concepts of operations (CONOPS) that employs units equipped with new technologies provide input into the analysis process and gain a better appreciation for the quantitative analysis products that the combat simulations could provide. Second, the analysts gain a better understanding of how a new force would fight differently and use that knowledge to inform the instantiation of the schemes of maneuver required by their combat simulations, which in turn improves their quantitative analysis products. To do this properly, operations research analysts must create the wargaming environment, conduct the wargames, and determine how to best integrate the wargame’s qualitative output into the computer-based combat simulations so that the study produces both qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Unfortunately, some of the department’s more senior analysts that cut their analytical teeth using computer-based combat simulations believe that wargames provide little or no analytic value. This view completely misses the fact that counterinsurgency, hybrid warfare, the gray zone of conflict, and competition short of war are not well addressed by the millions of dollars the department invests in the maintenance, staffing, and running of kinetic-focused combat simulations and the organizations that support them.

In a recent Naval War College Review article, Capt. Robert Rubel (ret.), professor emeritus of the U.S. Naval War College and former chair of its Wargaming Department, stated, “Two-sided gaming should be a widespread and essential part of the professional education process from pre-commissioning through senior service colleges and even flag level courses.” He went on to describe several virtues of wargaming:

  • “A routine diet of two-sided gaming can generate and hone the ability to reason competitively.”
  • “Making two-sided gaming the default PME vehicle will help to re-create a sandbox in which innovative reflexes can be developed.”
  • “Repeated struggling in competitive situations is more likely to produce new ideas and insights, especially if such experience is widespread in the officer corps.”

Rubel also goes on to caution: “Two-sided gaming is not easy. The design of such games must take care to channel competitive instincts properly.”

In summary, the Department of Defense’s need for increased capacity to conduct quality wargaming starts by educating its officer corps on how to design, conduct, and assess analytical, educational, and experiential wargames.

The Way Ahead

We propose jumpstarting wargaming education in the Department of Defense with a two-pronged approach. First, the Department of Defense needs wargame designers at an apprentice level. Any officer who is a candidate to serve on a general or flag staff (most field grade line officers) should complete a basic analytic wargaming course to enable them to bring value to a wargaming design team. We do not advocate for a specialty track for wargamers. Instead, all military leaders should be wargamers (such as the Navy’s flag ranks at the onset of WWII). The Army and Marine Corps do a decent job of introducing their young officers to some of the building blocks of wargaming. While sand table discussions, table-top exercises, and rehearsal of concept drills incorporate several of the elements of wargaming, they are typically missing the conflict or competition that a thinking adversary produces. These events provide a wargaming-like basis from which to build. A logical place for such a course is in the command and general staff college level of Joint Professional Military Education. 

Second, there needs to be an executive-level wargaming course for senior leaders. Senior officers who supervise and consume the results of wargaming today, such as primary staff officers on Combatant Command or other flag officer commanded staffs, need to understand what wargames are, how they are different from computer-based combat simulations, what to expect from well-designed wargames, and the level of resource investment required from them and their staff to obtain quality wargaming results. They also need to realize that their younger charges must couple their wargaming education with playing and designing wargames to become proficient wargamers. They must give their subordinates enough time to game. Moreover, senior leaders should lead by example, participating in and encouraging wargaming activities in their commands.

Over time, the wargaming apprentices, through playing, designing, and conducting wargames, will mature in their wargaming skills and take on wargaming leadership roles. Note that the goal is not to identify a pipeline to create wargaming masters. Such masters are rare individuals, and some may emerge from the ranks of military wargamers produced. But, just as most officers will never achieve flag rank, most uniformed wargamers will never become wargaming masters. The FFRDCs, educational institutions, and Department of Defense contractors have wargaming masters, and their expertise will still be needed to support the department. However, many good wargames can be designed without requiring the supervision of a wargaming master.

Since 2009, the Naval Postgraduate School’s Operations Research Department has offered an 11-week Wargaming Applications course to its resident students that focuses on the design, conduct, and analysis of wargames for Department of Defense, allied, and partner sponsors.4 The faculty designed the course recognizing that the Naval Postgraduate School’s Operations Research graduates – our military’s newest Operations Research analysts–needed to be able to design, conduct, and analyze a wargame. Acquiring these skills enables them to participate in, lead, and eventually supervise the end-to-end campaign analysis that incorporates wargaming, computer simulations, and other qualitative and quantitative analytic tools as future analytic assignments will require. The course organizers did not fully recognize the added benefit of this education until some of the Operations Research graduates started serving at Combatant Commands. These graduates, now staff officers, reached back to the Naval Postgraduate School to report how useful their wargaming design skills were in helping the Combatant Command staffs design and conduct useful planning wargames. They asked if the Wargaming Applications instructors could come to their location and teach a cadre of the Combatant Command personnel the same basic wargaming design skills they had internalized at the Naval Postgraduate School.

In response, NPS developed the week-long Mobile Education Team Basic Analytic Wargaming Course around the same philosophy as our resident wargaming course: learn by doing. The objectives for this course were two-fold.

First, it builds a cadre of personnel who can initiate, design, develop, conduct, and analyze a wargame. Unified Combatant Commands have leveraged this opportunity by having personnel from their operational planning teams and staff sections attend the course and work in teams to learn how to design, develop, and execute a wargame.

Second, since the sponsoring organization chooses the wargaming topic used in the course’s practical exercises, the organization can have the core foundation of a wargame created and demonstrated that can then be further built out and used by the organization to meet other organizational wargaming requirements. NPS has conducted over 20 week-long Mobile Education Team Basic Analytic Wargaming Courses around the world, including five at Combatant Commands. Today, NPS conducts 6-8 Mobile Education Team events annually, and demand remains high.

The philosophy in teaching wargaming is that it requires a hands-on, learn-by-doing approach. Both the resident and Mobile Education Team courses are over 70 percent practical exercises, where the students are applying the techniques that we illustrate in the lectures. In both courses, a Department of Defense, ally, or partner sponsor provides the wargaming topic that serves as the impetus behind the practical exercises. Student groups design, conduct, and then analyze wargames for their sponsors as the course’s graduation exercise. Since 2009, the Naval Postgraduate School resident student wargaming teams have conducted over 70 wargames for 35 Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Joint, International, and Industry sponsors. NPS views the wargaming course graduates as wargaming apprentices. They have enough knowledge and experience to make useful, often significant, contributions to any wargaming effort required in the department. Several recent graduates have actually led wargaming design initiatives at their respective organizations soon after graduation.


If the Department of Defense is serious about improving its wargaming capability, it needs to invest in its people through wargaming education. That education needs to be practical and applied at the company and field grade level, preferably as part of their Joint Professional Military Education or graduate school opportunities. If it is a priority to emphasize wargaming’s role in Department of Defense decision-making, simply “doing more wargames” is insufficient. Preparing warfighters to employ wargaming to the full extent of their purposes must be a necessary element.

Colonel (Retired) Jeff Appleget, Ph.D., spent 20 of his 30 years in the U.S. Army as an Operations Research/Systems analyst where he participated in and supervised acquisition and analysis studies using wargaming and computer-based combat simulations. Since 2009, Jeff has been a Senior Lecturer in the Operations Research Department at the Naval Postgraduate School where he teaches wargaming and combat modeling courses. Jeff has mentored over 70 wargames that have been created, conducted, and analyzed by NPS resident Operations Research and Defense Analysis student teams for DoD, Defense partner and allied nation sponsors, and the defense industry. He has led 20 NPS Mobile Education Teams to teach his week-long Basic Analytic Wargaming course in DoD and around the world, to include STRATCOM, CENTCOM, AFRICOM, MARFORPAC, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (two courses), NATO Special Operations Forces, the Australian Defence Force (four courses), the Canadian Air Force, the Indonesian Navy, the Taiwan Armed Forces, and a Tri-lateral course for the Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish Defence Research Agencies. He holds a Ph.D. in Operations Research from the Naval Postgraduate School, an M.S. in Operations Research and Statistics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a B.S. from the United States Military Academy. His major awards include the 2016 Richard W. Hamming Faculty Award for Interdisciplinary Achievement, the 2011 Army Modeling and Simulation Team Award (Analysis), 2003 Dr. Wilbur B. Payne Memorial Award for Excellence in Analysis, 2003 Simulation and Modeling for Acquisition, Requirements, and Training (SMART) Award, 2001 SMART Award, 1993 Instructor of the Year (At Large), Department of Mathematical Sciences,  U.S. Air Force Academy, 1991 Dr. Wilbur B. Payne Memorial Award for Excellence in Analysis, and 1990 Concepts Analysis Agency Director’s Award for Excellence. Along with Dr. Rob Burks, Jeff directs the activities of the NPS Naval Warfare Studies Institute Wargaming Center.

Colonel (Retired) Robert E. Burks, Jr., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Defense Analysis of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and with Jeff Appleget, directs the activities of the NPS Naval Warfare Studies Institute Wargaming Center. He holds a Ph.D. in Operations Research from the Air Force Institute of Technology, an M.S. in Operations Research from the Florida Institute of Technology. Rob is a retired Army Colonel with more than thirty years of military experience in leadership, advanced analytics, decision modeling, and logistics operations. He spent 17 years in the U.S. Army as an Operations Research/Systems analyst and has led multiple analytical study teams responsible for Army Transformation and organizational restructuring and design efforts using wargaming and computer-based combat simulations. Since 2015, Rob has taught multiple educational, historical, and analytical wargaming courses at NPS. He has taught the NPS week-long Basic Analytic Wargaming Course 14 times to the Department of Defense and other organizations around the world, to include CENTCOM, AFRICOM, MARFORPAC, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (two courses), NATO Special Operations Forces, the Australian Defence Force (four courses), and the Taiwan Armed Forces.

Captain Jeffrey E. Kline (ret.) served 26 years as a naval officer, including two sea commands. Jeff is currently a Professor of Practice in the Naval Postgraduate School Operations Research department. He directs the NPS Naval Warfare Studies Institute. He teaches campaign analysis, systems analysis, and executive programs in strategic planning and risk assessment. Jeff supports applied analytical research in maritime operations and security, tactical analysis, and future force composition studies. He has served on the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations’ Fleet Design Advisory Board and several Naval Study Board Committees of the National Academies. His faculty awards include the Superior Civilian Service Medal, 2019 J. Steinhardt Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Operations Research, 2011 Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) Award for Teaching of OR Practice, 2009 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Homeland Security Award, 2007 Hamming Award for interdisciplinary research, 2007 Wayne E. Meyers Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering Research, and the 2005 Northrop Grumman Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering. He is a member of the Military Operations Research Society and the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Missouri, a Master of Science in Operations Research from the Naval Postgraduate School, and a Master of Science in National Security Studies from the National Defense University’s National War College.


1. Peter Perla et. al, “Rolling the Iron Dice: From Analytical Wargaming to the Cycle of Research” October 21, 2019;

2. Matthew B. Caffrey, Jr., “On Wargaming” (2019). The Newport Papers. 43.

3. Phil Pournelle, “Can the Cycle of Research Save American Military Strategy?” October 18, 2019, WOTR,

4. Jeffrey Appleget, Robert Burks and Frederick Cameron, “The Craft of Wargaming: A Detailed Planning Guide for Defense Planners and Analysts,” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2020.

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