If you were to search BoardGameGeek and look for titles published in 2020 by that most venerable godfather of wargame design, Mark Herman, you will find only three. One could conclude that 2020 was a bit of a slow year for Mark with Versailles 1919 (co-designed by Geoff Englestein) for GMT Games as the only “new” design reaching publication along with Compass Games publishing a “Designer’s Signature Edition” of France 1944 : The Allied Crusade in Europe and GMT Games publishing the Tru’ung Bot for the COIN-series game Fire in the Lake. While Mr. Herman may have published only three commercial wargames in 2020, it only recently came to my attention that he was also busy in the professional wargaming space in a manner that we everyday people can see. Specifically, Mr. Herman designed the China Wargame Simulation for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC):
The virtual China wargame simulation is sponsored by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC). NPEC commissioned Mark Herman, a nationally renowned wargame designer, to create and organize the war simulation. The wargame is designed for Congressional and U.S. government staff.
The objective of this war simulation is to examine the scope and implications for U.S. policy toward an overt and aggressive expansion of PRC control over Taiwan and contested Japanese island possessions.NPEC Wargaming Report 2001, p. 5
Many details of this wargame are available on the NPEC strategy games public-facing website. Here is the scenario:
The scenario’s purpose is not to predict the future but to create a ‘credible ’situation to enable the team discussion and decisions around U.S. policy responses to PRC aggression against Taiwan and Japan. Teams were asked to not fight the game scenario, as this was the given design. The time of this scenario was held in May of 2021, post-U.S. inauguration. There was no comment on the composition of the U.S. government and all that mattered was the U.S. policy trajectory over the last decade. Again, participants as a team were asked to examine the scope and implications for U.S. policy toward an overt and aggressive expansion of PRC control over Taiwan and contested Japanese island possessions.
Within the game, China was presumed to be expansionistic and poised for its most aggressive phase against Taiwan and potentially Japan. From China’s perspective its expansionist trajectory has: (1) Ignored World Court ruling on the South China Sea; tepid U.S. response, (2) origin of current Pandemic; took no responsibility and paid no price, (3) broke Hong Kong autonomy promises (One State, Two Systems); tepid World response, and (4) in pursuit of its desire to reunify Taiwan into the PRC. The next steps, per the stated agenda, were to re-establish Party control over Taiwan.NPEC October 2020 China Wargame
The website has many of the pre-game briefing materials as well as turn notes and the final report posted. There are also videos of the Initial Brief and the War Simulation Explanation delivered by Mark himself.
Mr. Herman’s professional wargame is one of several I’ve seen in the public over the past few years regarding Taiwan, including The Poison Frog Strategy: Preventing a Chinese Fait Accompli Against Taiwanese Islands done by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in 2021 that more recently appeared on NBC News Meet the Press (the public-facing final report is available here). Admittedly, while the two wargames cover the same topic (“Taiwan”) and both physically appear very similar (hexes and counters), they truly are two different games. They are also not “wargames” in the sense that they emphasize conflict, but instead focus on creating discussion of policy issues. The additional fact that Mark’s game was run virtually versus the in-person Meet the Press event also leads to two very different games. Regardless, the NPEC materials on Mr. Herman’s wargame can serve as an example for others who look for how one might approach a policy wargame. In the case of Mr. Herman’s NPEC wargame, we get a peek at how a “professional” wargamer does a “professional” wargame.
It is also interesting to compare Mr. Herman’s wargame and those of CNAS to commercial wargames like Mitchel Land’s Next War: Taiwan (GMT Games, 2014) or designer John Gorkowski’s South China Sea from Compass Games (2017), Harold Buchanan’s Flashpoint: South China Sea (GMT Games, 2022) or even the forthcoming Littoral Commander: Indo-Pacific by Sebastian Bae from The Dietz Foundation. In many of the commercial wargames, the focus is the opposite of the think-tank games; it’s all about the combat modeling. In many cases national policies are relegated to scenario conditions or lightly modeled (see the “Political Turns” in South China Sea). (I don’t have Flashpoint in hand yet but it superficially appears to be less combat and more a “cubes for influence” game design.) While admittedly each game is targeted at different audiences (as reflected in the different levels of war in each) it is still enlightening to see the different ways you can wargame an issue.
Judging from the NPEC “War and Diplomatic Simulations” page, Mr. Herman—listed as a member of the NPEC Team—appears to be quite busy designing professional wargames even today. In the olden days, there were examples of wargame publishers picking up a wargame done for a government customer and publishing a “commercial” version. In effect, this is the story of Littoral Commander. Could we see a Mark Herman modern China wargame on the shelves of our FLGS in the future?
Feature image courtesy npecstrategygames.org