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)

0 thoughts on “Wargaming at the Academy: Why Invest in NHWL and Building A Culture of Wargaming ”

  1. Great article, with echoes to conversations I had the opportunity to sit in on as a midshipman. Its about time Annapolis get serious about wargaming and GPC.

  2. Reminds me of a similar Proceedings article entitled “Warfighting First? Not so much.” As a recent grad, I’m excited to see writers nudging the academy in this direction.

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