Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Improving Operational Wargaming: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a War

Summary and Critique by Claude Bingham


As part of an initiative to reinvent wargaming in the Department of Defense, Lt. Col. Matthew E. Hanson wrote this monograph to explore the strengths and pitfalls of wargaming. Wargames have ten pathologies, or elements of a wargame that are subject to failure. They are: objectives, scenario, database, models, rules and procedures, infrastructure, participants (including players, controllers, and observers), analysis, culture and environment, and audiences.

Any one, or multiple, of these can fail to be designed correctly, balanced properly, or evaluated accurately. Wargames are often underspecified in their inclusion of existing doctrine into game design and inconvenient outcomes can be rejected or disregarded. The most important idea from this study is that military doctrine often diverges from wargaming and neglects to integrate lessons learned into living doctrine.

Game Element Analysis, or GEA and wargame failure modes can be used to develop wargames and evaluate wargame outcomes and doctrine. Instead of choosing the United States' plan for Midway, Lt. Col. Hanson chose Japan's because of evident failures to evaluate results of their wargame plan. Hanson explains wargaming as a "synthetic experience" to test decision-making and strategy in an environment with limited information. He also states that a good wargame not only proves or disproves the effectiveness of evaluated strategies, but also reveals flaws and gaps in those strategies. A bad wargame will fail to push a strategy far enough.

Japan's loss at the Battle of Midway was not only affected by poor wargaming, but also Japan's early naval successes during WWII. Planning suffered because of an unwillingness to challenge that momentum procedurally. Additionally, wargame outcomes that were seen as undesirable were completely disregarded. This confidence led to a wargame scenario that left Midway's attacking battle group underpowered and a verbal order to keep bombers in reserve was unheaded.


This study did an excellent job showing both the value and pitfalls of a wargame scenario. It also used quotes from Japanese officers that speak to their realization of what went wrong. Like in most cases, wargames are affected greatly by human error, especially that which underestimates the ability of an adversary to fight back. I feel that this research was missing an important piece, however. It does not recommend absolute dedication to recording all procedural discussions during a wargame's development, Course-of-Action, or post-mortem. That appears to be a must. No stone can be left unturned.


  1. While he did do a good job of stating which aspects can be poorly designed, I think he's stating a lot of obvious facts. If any parts of wargaming are poorly designed, the war game will not be effective. A good way to not state the obvious would be to examine how a poor design of each of those aspects leads to a failed war game.

  2. That is actually referenced. There is a separate article that lays out all ten pathologies of war games. The main ones that affected the Japanese Midway Battle Plan were described in detail in Hanson's article.

  3. I believe that not only in wargaming, but in the a broad scope of the field of intelligence itself does human error play arguably the most important part in intelligence failures. Whether it be underestimating an adversary's ability to fight back or a failure in identifying their course of action due to biases such as mirror imaging, the decision-making aspect of wargaming and real life situations will always be subject to human error.

  4. Wargaming can definitely be considered as a tool to reduce uncertainty, something that can be extremely valuable in a war context. Nonetheless, my question is as follows. Does the author provide recommendations that can be used to deal with the so called pathologies?

  5. War gaming when specified correctly can enlighten strategic values in some plans while poking holes and being able ti identify gaps in current strategies. This raises the question of how do you specify a war game for an entity who acts irrationally and does respond to situations rationally. Such is the case with North Korea could there be an effective way to design and test strategies with a leader who is to the American mind irrational.