Mitchell Land, designer of the Next War-series of modern wargames from GMT Games posted a piece on the Inside GMT Games Blog titled Semper Fi! – The Next War at Marine War College. In the blog he talks about using Next War: Poland (GMT Games, 2017) as a learning exercise at the Marine Corps War College. His experience using wargames in a military classroom tracks closely with mine and highlights the value of gaming as an educational tool.
According to Mitchell, the key takeaways of the day for him were:
1. They’re playing Next War: Poland at the Marine War College. How freaking cool is that?
2. See #1. 🙂
3. The After Action Review was a fascinating insight into the warfighters’ minds. Sorry I can’t discuss it here, because, then I’d have to shoot you. Just kidding. They’re just like wargamers all over the world. They dissected some of the moves and discussed and considered options in terms of the operational and strategic imperatives driven by both the game and the real world.
4. I heard, distinctly, in terms of the game: “You’re not far off.” That warms the cockles of my heart (whatever those are).
5. The Advanced Game, as much as I love it, is not the right presentation for a learning experience. We switched to the Standard Game about half way through, which was interesting since there were bunch of Strike markers on the map not to mention the HQs. At the end of the day, though, the students improvised, adapted, and overcame (see what I did there?).
6. Overall impressions were favorable. The students could see the operational issues and anticipate and react accordingly.
7. Did you see #1?
Reactions #1, #2, and #7 are exactly why I play wargames; it’s freaking cool! Fun factor aside, I also play wargames for serious reasons. In keeping with #5 I have found that when teaching the best wargames are the most simple ones. As tempting as it it to “play with all the chrome” the reality is that the extra learning burden can obscure the real learning objective. I often find that when playing with non-wargamers, the basic rules often work fine and the scenario can be used to bring out concepts that need to be explored. In the case of military professionals, the students are often very knowledgeable about the subject but when able to visualize it on a map and physically move units (a tactile function) it creates a connection to the subject more powerful than reading it or seeing it passively on a screen.
The best wargames are not simulations, but abstracted models of real (or plausible) events. Although there are many commercial wargames available, sometimes it is best to make your own. As much as I want to call these games professional, they often don’t compare in physical quality to the hobby market segment of the gaming hobby. But that is not necessarily a bad thing; the focus of play need not be simulating the war, but highlighting in the wargame key factors or concepts upon which the battle may turn. Sometimes there is a commercial game that can be leveraged for this purpose; sometimes not.
Mitchell goes on to talk about the best parts of the day:
The best part was the wide ranging wrap up discussion which covered such ground as having the right kind of leader in place in an allied effort, a la Eisenhower, along with a brief deliberation of how Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton all seemed to end up in the right place after all. There was a fairly cogent analysis of how much of that was planning versus just plain dumb luck. Immediately following that “well it was political” argument, there was a review of what might have happened had Lincoln put Grant in command earlier rather than trying to delay his rise because he thought he was a potential political rival.
Naturally, of course, some of the discussion revolved quite a bit around Russian intentions and motivations vis a vis the Baltics as well as what might really happen if this new cold war got hot. Most importantly, we talked about how best to represent those motivations in a game format. Nugget of wisdom here: it call comes down to appropriately defining the victory conditions.
When using wargames for teaching, the most important, and arguably the most educational, part of the “game” is the After Action Review (AAR). This is where the players can reflect on what they experienced in the wargame and draw “lessons learned.” This is also where a good instructor and a strong lesson plan can make a difference. In a professional wargame I recently playtested the instructors first discussed basic military factors before playing the game. After the game, those same factors formed the outline of the discussion. It was very satisfying to see how quickly the players/students connected with the concepts introduced in the lecture and were immediately able to relate them to an event or situation that happened in game.
If you want to see what “serious games” are like (Spoiler Alert – they cover more than just wargames) then the best place to check out is Rex Brynen’s PAXSims. As the website says, PAXSims “is devoted to peace, conflict, humanitarian, and development simulations and serious games for education, training, and policy analysis.” For an example of how the UK Defence Forces are incorporating wargaming into military education, planning, decision-making, and analysis read the Defence Wargaming Handbook.
Read through them, and learn something today.
Feature image paxsims.wordpress.com