Mind the gap – the #wargame paper time-machine of Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988)

JAMES F. DUNNIGAN, ONE OF THE FATHERS OF WARGAMING, is credited with stating that wargames are a “paper time-machine” (1). This is great, but there is actually alot missing here. Let’s look at the full quote which opens Chapter 1 of Dunnigan’s seminal work, The Complete Wargames Handbook:

What is a Wargame?

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science. It is a paper time-machine.

The Complete Wargames Handbook, 3rd Ed, 1.

This week as part of my 2019 CSR Awards Challenge I replayed Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988). At the same time, I took delivery of a new book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898 – 1945 by Trent Hone (2). Put together, the game and book got me thinking about wargames and what we learn from them.

Much has been written about the role wargames played in educating the US Navy before World War II. Hone tells us how war gaming “encouraged experimentation with new tactical approaches and improved the ability to assess them.” He goes on to state:

The primary purpose of the games, or “war problems,” was to further the education of officers. They gave practice at applying the principles of war, encouraged critical thinking, and provided practical training in the art of command.

Learning War, 98.

I can see that. I definitely agree that wargames are excellent at applying the principles of war, making me think critically, and in a loose fashion exercise command. But it’s not perfect. In his chapter “Heuristics at Guadalcanal”, Hone discusses the Battle of Tassafaronga. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

Prior to the battle Rear Admiral Kincaid had assessed the lessons from earlier engagements and developed an aggressive plan incorporating them. He instructed his destroyers to press ahead and attack them from close range with torpedoes; the lead destroyer would use an SG radar to develop a clear picture of the action and guide the others to the launch point. Cruisers would remain distant, far from the threat of Japanese torpedoes; they would use radar-assisted gunfire as their primary weapon. Like Lee, Kincaid refused to employ Scott’s linear formation.

But Kincaid was wrong about Japanese torpedoes. He expected them to be similar to the Navy’s own. Since ten thousand yards was beyond their effective range but was also the maximum range of radar-directed cruiser gunfire at the time, Kincaid instructed the cruisers to engage from that range. He expected in that way to stay out of “torpedo water” while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy.

Learning War, 203-204.

As we know, the battle did not turn out well for the US Navy. As Hone writes, “Wright’s cruisers opened fire moments after Cole released his torpedoes. Tanaka’s destroyers had already seen Wright’s ships and were setting up their own torpedo attack” (3). James D. Hornfischer, in his book Neptune’s Inferno, called the Japanese attack, “one of the most lethal torpedo salvos of the war” (4). Minneapolis and Pensacola were hit; New Orleans’ bow was blown off. Northhampton was sunk (5).

Norman Friedman, in his book Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2017) writes in his concluding chapter “Games versus Reality in the Pacific,” that wargaming for the US Navy before World War II had three possible functions:

  • To explore possible wartime situations in ways full-scale exercises could not
  • To teach students how to fight
  • To understand or even predict the behavior of foreign powers (6).

Friedman points out that for the first function military judgement based on experience could often foresee outcomes but not when entirely new technology was involved. This ties closely with the third factor because it required players simulate alien ways of thinking (7).

Just how does this get recreated in a wargame? The problem is that we wargamers often “know” that Kincaid’s initial deployment and battle plan at Tassafaronga is “flawed” because, unlike Kincaid, we know about the Japanese Long Lance torpedo. Therefore, wargamers can consciously (and more often unconsciously) act to avoid the danger. This is what designer Tetsuya Nakamura terms “the hindsight gap:”

The hindsight gap arises because people living through real history do not know the results of their actions, but a player in a tabletop simulation game is aware of these results. For example, the French army believed that tank forces could not pass through the Ardennes Forest, but German Panzer forces did exactly this in 1940. In another instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy was ambushed by the US Navy at Midway in 1942 because they believed there were no US aircraft carriers there. But in a tabletop simulation game, we already know that there are hidden US aircraft carriers at Midway, so players will never fall victim to such a surprise attack.

Tetsuya Nakamura, “The Fundamental Gap Between Tabletop Simulation Games and the “Truth.” Published in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016). 43.

In many ways Tokyo Express is an excellent combination of game, history, and science. What really sets it apart is how the Enemy AI overcomes some of the hindsight gap. Unlike a game such as Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) with its scenarios that try to faithfully recreate the battle, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can operate in “unexpected” ways. Be it the arrival of unexpected forces or enemy operations in ways that are plausible but not historically exact, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can teach a player that has the benefit of the hindsight gap. The science of the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express gets us past the hindsight gap. In turn, Tokyo Express gives us a better understanding of the past making it a better game for getting a jump on the future.


  1. Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook (3rd Ed. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2000), 1.
  2. Hone, Trent. Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018). The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, recommended Learning War to new Admirals, Retired Flag Officers, members of his staff, and other naval officers. It reflects the strong emphasis he is placing on command in 2018 and it is now part of the CNO’s reading list. ( There is also another notable wargaming book on the list. See Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Simulating Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)).
  3. ibid, 204.
  4. Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 390.
  5. Hone, 204.
  6. Friedman, 161.
  7. ibid.

Feature image Battle Display from Tokyo Express.

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