#Wargame Wednesday – China Wargame Simulation: NPEC Wargame Report 2001 (October 2020) – A professional wargame by @markherman54 for @NuclearPolicy

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

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Wargaming America’s Stand-In Force

Have you heard of Force Design 2030? It’s the new warfighting concept for the U.S. Marine Corps. Apparently it’s become quite controversial. What I find interesting is the prominence wargaming is getting in the arguments for and against the concept.

“Normally what would have happened in the past, there would have been a concept, there would have been war games, there would have been field evaluations before these sorts of drastic moves were made,” Van Riper said.

“Jeopardizing national security: What is happening to our Marine Corps?” Marine Corps Times, March 21, 2022

Tim Barrick, the wargaming director for the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at the Marine Corps University wrote for War on the Rocks recently about his perspective. As a wargamer I found some of his comments insightful as it pertains to the uses of wargaming.

One of the commandant’s first priority tasks was to identify risks associated with this design. The task sparked an immediate series of wargames, which I oversaw, to examine the divestments. Based on this risk assessment, the commandant decided to proceed in some areas while deferring trade-off decisions in others, pending more analysis.

Wargames…as risk assessment. A solid reminder that wargames don’t (can’t?) predict the future, but are useful to help identify areas of concern (i.e. “risk”).

In an article in Politico, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Paul Van Riper appeals, “What we want to see is these changes are based on thorough study and analysis, not just projections of what might be needed.” Yet there were reams of reports on wargames, experiments, and studies on potential investment decisions and warfighting concepts that informed Berger’s decisions. 

Wargames…as one tool in the Commandant’s kitbag to help inform decisions (not make them).

There is, however, a legitimate critique of the commandant’s approach: He handed the force development enterprise a single course of action, which dominated the analysis and wargaming in a way that left little room for a consideration of alternatives.

In the military planning process, the step for wargaming is preceded by COA (Courses of Action) development. At the very least there needs to be at least two COA identified; Most Likely and Most Dangerous. This apparently did not happen.

Having wargamed many of the ideas that contributed to stand-in forces, my view is they are, without a doubt, applicable to crisis response scenarios and will do better than the legacy force under most circumstances. 

An opinion, but again one informed by wargaming.

Force Design 2030 drops the active component infantry from 24 to 21 battalions and the size of each battalion from 896 to between 733 and around 800, according to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. As such, in the most extreme case, the Marine Corps drops active component infantry from 21,504 to 15,393 — a 29 percent overall reduction. However, based on experimentation and wargaming, the Marine Corps is likely going to settle around 800 per battalion, a 22 percent reduction in total infantry

Experimentation in the Warfighting Lab, aka “wargaming,” used again to inform a decision.

What is a concern is that Force Design 2030 envisions infantry that are both commando-like in their employment and episodically become the core of new littoral combat teams focused on sea denial. Given the National Defense Strategy, the idea of a littoral combat team contributing to a joint maritime campaign has merit. There are many joint, Navy, and Marine Corps wargames from the past several years that support this. But multi-tasking the infantry, by design, to be both commandos and littoral combat teams may undercut their ability to effectively do either. There are alternative configurations that avoid this stress to the force. The service’s World War II-era coastal defense battalions serve as precedent for this. According to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, in the ongoing refinements to the infantry battalion and the Marine littoral regiment, such an alternative approach is in consideration.

It’s good to see wargaming being used to inform decisions, as well as some acknowledgement that although they were handed a single COA, there are still alternatives emerging form the process. Marines and wargaming have a bit of a controversial history, with then Maj Gen Van Riper right in the middle of it (look up Millennium Challenge 2002).

As Paddy Griffith said, wargames fall into four broad categories; for fun, for teaching, for historical research, and for prediction. I’ll argue that even though commercial hobby wargames certainly try to emphasize the “for fun” part (though everyones defintion of “fun” is different), they also teach and can be used for historical research (as in exposing new understanding, i.e. to inform the players).

Prediction is a much tougher subject. In recent weeks I can’t even tell you how many “experts” have popped up on social media claiming expertise on tank warfare in the Ukraine based on a high score in World of Tanks. Putting those clowns aside, there are some commercial hobby players who don’t want to even touch wargames about the future and only want to play historical conflict simulations. Others look at modern/near-future games as not that different from science fiction. With the recent sinking of the RFN Moskva, I think we can at least see that some game models can be “validated.” Beyond that, I think hobby wargames can be useful in providing insight into the future. The real challenge is not in designing a wargame that looks at the future and “gets it right,” but understanding the various biases and assumptions underpinning the game and models. Before one can draw conclusions, one must understand the model.

While it has been very good to see professional wargaming getting some attention, I also see danger here. It is going to be very easy for some to say “the wargames are wrong” and therefore so are the decisions the wargames are supposed to inform. In some ways the criticisms are justified; especially if the wargames were only given a single COA to evaluate. There are some who might compare the situation to historical wargames that have only a single scenario and special rules to achieve outcomes closer to reality. As I have argued before, wargame designers and players need to be ready for “non-historic” outcomes because sometimes history was the outlier, not the mean.

Here’s to hoping the Force Design 2030 wargames were truly informative and not driven to produce a true outlier condition.

Feature image courtesy @KrulakCenter on Twitter

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Boardgame to #Wargame – or – Professional training with Catan (@catan, 1995)

YOU CAN’T TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS is the saying. Or an old game. As I continue my 2019 challenge series one of the next games up is Catan (1995). This game won the Origins Award in 1996 for “Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Board Game.”


I mean, Catan is a decent game. It is most famous not for the game but what the game represents; the true arrival of Eurogames in North America. It was a genre-making product. The RockyMountainNavy family occasionally plays Catan; we still pull it out as a gateway game for new gamers (especially younger gamers) but it mostly goes unplayed as our tastes have changed over the years.

Since Catan is so famous it is inevitable that players will tinker with the design. Catan has doubtlessly inspired many other games directly and indirectly. Interestingly, players not only look at what other games Catan inspires, but also at the game thesis behind Catan and look for other applications.

A “professional” example is found at The Wavell Room. The article is “The ‘Settlers of Catan’ as a Model for Post-Conflict Development.” Here the authors explore using Catan to focus on restarting of industrial production, developing infrastructure, investing in innovation, and planning for insurgency. As the authors point out:

The victorious player in Catan is the one who successfully balances these four priorities to the best effect throughout the game. There will be significant debate to be had between the best strategies for both initial stability and also long-term development. Resolving the interface between these strategies will enable a player to tie together a coherent plan through the short, medium and long term. This will prove to be excellent training for the more challenging task of doing so in a real life situation.

Professional wargamers in policy or defense fields should take note. Even “old dog” games an be used for training. It might take a bit of imagination to make the connection but once there you can’t unsee it.

Perfect excuse to take Catan to the office; it’s professional education! Think the boss will buy it?

Feature image BoardGameGeek. Caption was “Conqueror” – how fitting….