Wargames may not predict the future, but a well-designed and well-executed wargame can better equip both analysts and practitioners in facing an uncertain future – filled with unknown dangers.


[UPDATED 29 May 2020 for a late entry]

For this Whiteboard we reached out again to several scholars with the following prompt:

How can wargaming improve government response to catastrophic events?

Readers are invited to make their own contributions in the comments section.

1. Kristan J. Wheaton, Professor of Strategic Futures, Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College

Wargaming does a number of things really well.  There are two that are particularly important during catastrophic events.  First, wargaming can do a very good job of implicitly teaching a mental model of the problem to people who knew nothing about the problem yesterday, but all need to know something about it today.  Second, wargaming doesn’t just highlight the elements of the model, it also explores the relationships between them.

For example, the commercial board game, Pandemic, does an excellent job of conveying, in just a couple of hours, many of the major strategic elements associated with pandemics and pandemic response.  This game comes from a relatively new genre of games called “cooperative games.”  In a cooperative game, players have different roles and have to work together to beat the game.  They either all win or all lose.  Catastrophic events often require exactly the same kind of cooperation but talking about it is not the same as doing it.  Winning or losing in the game ties emotion to that lesson and makes it more tangible.  Other lessons, like how a highly connected world can accelerate the spread of a pathogen or how densely populated, poorly resourced areas of the world can become breeding grounds, are not just taught, they are lived, in a way, through a game such as this.

There are a few caveats, of course.  First, wargaming typically teaches a model–the one that underlies the game.  As such, it is always a simplified version of the real world.  Additionally, it may not be the right, or even the best, one available.  As good a game as Pandemic is, it was designed for playability, not for realism.  Second, and particularly during catastrophic events, it might be hard to design and develop complex, realistic games to either educate staff or to help analyze various courses of action.  Fast and frugal games designed to familiarize large groups of people about the essential elements of a catastrophe and some responses to it seem like reasonable goals, however.


2. Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin, Research Fellow, U.S. Naval War College

 We must first bound the problem. Certain events are so catastrophic they are not worth considering, for example the earth colliding with a large comet. The miniscule likelihood and scale of devastation of such events makes any effort at planning a response pointless. There are several types of catastrophe, for example hurricanes, pandemics and major wars, that occur sufficiently often that political pressure to deal with them is generated and warranted. The wargaming literature is replete with arguments for the value of using wargaming in planning and prosecuting war, and little more needs to be said on this topic. The real question is how to use wargaming to improve government response to non-military low-probability, high-impact events.

Two major barriers stop the government using wargaming to improve their response to non-military catastrophes. The most important barrier is the failure of wargaming advocates to clearly demonstrate additional value (faster, better, cheaper) to, or advantages over, the planning and preparation tools currently used. The second barrier is whether senior elected and appointed officials are motivated to plan a response for a future event. This lack of motivation is created by their decision time horizon, which might have nothing to do with decisions about the future event under consideration (for example a looming election, a budget or reporting deadline). Every decision comes with costs and benefits which accrue at different rates over time, with the costs outweighing the benefits to the decision maker or vice versa depending on the precise time horizon of the decision maker. If the costs outweigh the benefits for a response at the official’s future time horizon, the official will spend time and energy on other activities.

These barriers are overcome by wargaming with the trusted staff of key decision makers to recruit them into persuading their bosses to take gaming responses to the future possible catastrophe seriously. The key is focusing these staffs’ games on the possible consequences to the decision makers that will occur beyond their time-horizons as they explore competing courses of action or fail to act. In such wargames the decision makers and staff are the Blue players, and the Red players represent those whose response to government performance, or lack of it, can damage the decision makers. These games will provide both insight into effective courses of action and will motivate officials into carrying them out, thus improving government response to catastrophic events.


3. Dr ED McGrady, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Principal at Monks Hood Media LLC.

Games are about people.  Coincidentally almost all of the failures in emergency response operations are the result of people, not systems, plans, or technology.  People fail to imagine, coordinate, or simply get along.  Games should help, but they don’t.

Let’s take COVID-19 and communications.  The usual communications challenges within CDC and HHS have arisen.  Again.  We saw similar problems with communications between CDC and HHS in the 2001 anthrax attacks.  Failure in communications is nothing new in a major disease response, with internal differences within an agency or department sowing confusion that only magnifies as it crosses department boundaries in the interagency.

Games address issues of coordination, communication, and organizational turf.  But we designed and ran games to improve coordination and communications within HHS and CDC.  Lessons were supposed to have been learned.  They were not.

For another example we can look at Hurricane KatrinaTo do so we need to realize that about a year prior the game “Hurricane Pam” was held in New Orleans.  It identified many of the challenges that would be seen in Katrina.  But it was a lower level planning game, not one targeted at the leadership level.  Lessons were not learned.

Games are a way for people involved in a major emergency response to meet each other, go over plans and processes, share stories about equipment and capabilities, and rehearse what they are going to do.  But too often the lessons of these games are learned at the wrong level, and never fully penetrate the organizations involved.  Instead we create a cadre of highly skilled professionals who understand emergency response and have rehearsed it.  During a high visibility response these professionals end up finding themselves confused and frustrated when the political, social, and organizational elements take over.

It is easy to say that those who sponsor games and view their results should be better consumers of our product.  But that can be difficult.  Senior leaders are neither inclined to participate in games, nor engage in speculation.  Organizations can be notoriously hard to change.  None of this will get better just because you rehearsed them.

I think we need to do several things in our emergency response games:

  • Engage senior leaders. This is hard, but without it the wrong people are learning our lessons.
  • Better represent the pressure that public opinion, media, and the general social pressure exert. This is almost impossible, but if we are imaginative and resourceful there are ways to accomplish it.
  • Figure out a way to deal with the current bizarre state of American political and social conflict. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.  Whatever your opinion of politics the current culture does affect how everyone, from leaders to the general public, perceive emergency events.   I’ve been avoiding it in games, perhaps it’s time to figure out how to deal with it.


4. Dr Jim Lacey, Marine Corps University’s Horner Chair of Military Theory

Napoleon was likely born with a natural aptitude for battlefield command.  No doubt he improved on his natural ability through study and the application of a lot of time thinking about the conduct of war.  But, probably more than any single factor, the fact that he commanded in over sixty major battles explains much of what made him great.  In the first decade of the 19th century Napoleon was, by a wide margin, the most experienced battlefield commander in Europe.  As other generals fought more battles and learned his methods, Napoleon’s margin of superiority withered away, until Wellington scathingly remarked after the Battle of Waterloo: “They came on in the same old way and we beat them in the same old way.”

Similarly, NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees, enter the NFL with a natural aptitude for the game, which they hone by practice and study.  Still, a strong case can be made that the difference between a good quarterback and the greatest QBs of all time is longevity.  By the time a quarterback has finished a half-decade as a starter in the NFL there is little he has not seen.  In fact, this vast experience and learned capacity as a field general, is what makes these players formidable for many years after their natural athletic talents have begun to wane.

Similarly, good crisis management in times of crisis depends on two things: strong superior leadership, and the leader’s level of experience in handling similar crisis environments.  The United State government and particularly the military is not bereft of strong leaders.  Moreover, as they rise in the ranks, many of them have garnered tremendous experience handling crises events at lower levels.  But taking charge of a national or global level crisis is a hugely different proposition, one in which few have any practical experience.  Moreover, those senior leaders who do see us through such a crisis are usually retired or dead when the next one arrives.

By default, we are asking senior leaders to tackle crises at a level few, if any, of them have any practical experience.  They do not know the other players, they have no context within which to frame solutions, they have never experimented with alternative solutions… the list continues.

To carry our above metaphor a bit further, a Rookie can beat Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, but that either means he was incredibly lucky, or he was surrounded by a very experienced team around him.  Unfortunately, we cannot rely on luck, and hope is still not a plan.  Moreover, in a catastrophic level national/global crisis, the leader’s team is likely to be even more inexperienced and clueless than he or she is.

As we cannot manufacture a crisis on demand to give our perspective leaders and crisis teams Napoleon’s sixty reps and sets, there remains only one option – they must be wargamed.

Only through extensive and repetitive wargaming can we give national level leaders and the teams that support them the experience and contexts they will need to draw upon in an actual emergency.

One can only wonder how life would be different today if the NSC had wargamed out a global pandemic once a year since the SARS outbreak.  At the very least they would have learned that they could not make a single sensible decision without a baseline number of total infections – making testing kits an immediate national priority.  Moreover, they possibly would not find themselves surprised that closing a huge chunk of the economy has the nation standing on the abyss of another Great Depression.

Only through wargaming can we assure that our leaders and their supporting teams will not find every twist of road as a novel and unexpected problem.


5. Rex Brynen, Professor of Political Science, McGill University and Editor of the conflict simulation project PAXsims. Wargaming Advisor to the Canadian Joint Warfare Centre.

In early January, government officials conducted a series of games on an emerging global pandemic with potentially catastrophic consequences. Through these, they shared information across organizations, identified potential shortcomings in emergency response, and developed a better understanding of key stakeholders and a new appreciation for challenges they might face.

This was not COVID-19, however. Rather, the participants were from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the pandemic is African Swine Fever—something even more deadly, if you’re a pig. These were not wargames, either, even if hundreds of thousands (of pigs) died and anticipated economic damage ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. However, the process was striking for the speed and low cost with which the game was developed, the buy-in from senior leaders, the positive feedback from participants, and its integration into broader policy development.

Gaming can enhance the ability of government to respond to catastrophic events in many ways. There is substantial evidence to show their effectiveness in crowd-sourcing insight from participants and improving their ability to accurately anticipate outcomes. However, not all games do everything equally well.

Many emergency management exercises are hardly games at all, in that they are procedurally oriented, heavily scripted, and have relatively predictable outcomes. This is good if the purpose is to acquaint participants with the issues (and each other), practice skills, and enhance the inter-agency working. It is less effective if one wants a “deep dive” discussion into key issues. Seminar games—in which participants are given a scenario, discuss and develop a course of action, and the scenario is then updated to reflect this—offer more opportunity for thoughtful reflection. However, they usually involve only a few turns and hence less opportunity to explore cause and effect. Because of this, they may provide only limited opportunities for adaptive adversarial play, unanticipated black swans, and the fog and friction of emergency operations. Some versions are quite large undertakings, requiring substantial preparation and a day or more of play. They are hard to run in multiple iterations, which then limits their ability to explore the full problem space concerned.

Shorter and simpler games, by contrast, allow for repeated play. This can allow an organization to involve diverse groups of participants, manipulate game parameters, and explore a broader range of policies and responses. Matrix games—free form narrative games with few predetermined rules, in which adjudication is largely achieved through player discussion—can be especially good at this. It comes at a cost, however, in terms of the complexity and fidelity of procedures and models that the game can support.

In all cases, appropriate support from senior leadership is vital. Leaders who understand the value and limitations of games, and who welcome results that highlight shortcomings or raise uncomfortable questions, use them most effectively. Their support for (war)gaming also encourages participants to take the process seriously. Conversely, when leadership sees gaming as an opportunity to tick boxes (“we had a wargame”) or to validate preconceptions (“gamewashing”), the value of the process diminishes sharply. At their worst, bad games can do real damage.

Finally, even well-considered conclusions from a well-run game do not necessarily get translated into an improved policy response. Public health officials, medical researchers, and national security officials around the world had been running games about a potential a global pandemic for many years before COVID-19. It is clear that many lessons were ignored or forgotten.

In short, (war)gaming can make an important contribution to enhancing government’s ability to respond to catastrophic events and other emergencies. In using games in this way, however, it is important to identify key objectives and design the game appropriately. Finally, just running the game is not enough. The findings of a game need to be analyzed and policy changes developed and adopted—a complex process in which resources, bureaucratic process, and politics play an even larger role.


6. Sebastian J. Bae, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University and Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation

Wargames are abstracted models of national security challenges, where players’ decisions and their consequences are adjudicated within a rules-based environment. Due to its inherent flexibility as a tool, wargaming can be applied to a wide range of issues. Scenarios can be diverse, including military conflictsterrorist attacks, and humanitarian responses. Yet, it is important to understand what wargaming can and cannot do. Wargames explore possible scenarios based on research and analysis, but they do not predict the future. Similarly, wargames can highlight challenges and key decision points, but do not offer validated solutions. Most importantly, wargaming offers the greatest utility when integrated within a cycle of research, including modeling and simulation and field exercises.

With these caveats in mind, wargaming can improve government responses to catastrophic events in two fundamental ways – through analysis and education. Analytical wargames are designed to produce new knowledge, such as identifying trends or potential problems. For instance, Dark Winter, a 2001 wargame involving a bioterrorist attack, discovered that the federal government was ill-prepared for a large-scale health crisis. Dark Winter highlighted several problems such as insufficient vaccines and the difficulty of a unified response across levels of government. Likewise, in Outbreak 2019, the Naval War College wargamed a multi-national humanitarian response to an infectious outbreak in a developing nation. Within the wargame, divergent institutional prerogatives and a scarcity of information often led to competing responses. These examples demonstrate how analytical wargames can help inform policy and produce insights for future research.

Meanwhile, educational wargames are designed to enable experiential learning – to learn by doing. Both Clade X and Event 201, wargames designed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, sought to inform and educate senior leadership about infectious disease response. Likewise, FEMA offers a publicly available tabletop exercise to train the private sector in disaster response. Educational wargames enable various stakeholders, such as analysts, practitioners, and policymakers, to dynamically work through a problem. Decisions have consequences within wargames, creating an interactive feedback loop. As a result, wargames create the opportunity to boldly question assumptions, test innovative solutions, and learn from mistakes.

Wargames may not predict the future, but a well-designed and well-executed wargame can better equip both analysts and practitioners in facing an uncertain future – filled with unknown dangers.


7. COL Ken S. Gilliam, Director, Strategic Wargaming, Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College

Dr. Ed McGrady’s November 2019 War on the Rocks article sets the foundation for how the government can improve its response to future catastrophic events through wargaming: it’s all about the humans involved and the stories they tell. The story of the current pandemic is still forming, and it may serve as a good mental model for future pandemics. However, improving government response to the next catastrophic event depends on getting the right people in the room to experience the story.

Several governmental agencies and think tanks have tried to use high level events (let’s liberally call them wargames) including possible pandemics to shape United States policy and response readiness. Recent articles proclaim these events as clear evidence the government knew of the impending disasters and chose to ignore them rather than act. Events like Dark Winter, Clade X, and Event 201 tell great stories but typically fail to gather the right people into the room to participate in the experience. A review of the players in the most recent, Johns Hopkins’ Event 201 in October 2019, reveals each and every one is a thought leader in their respective fields, but none holds a governmental position of decision. One exception was RADM Stephen C. Redd, who, as Director of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, coordinates activities across the CDC and with public health partners. However, he does not appear on the CDC’s public facing organizational chart. Likewise, Representative Susan Brooks was the only player in Clade X currently associated with the United States Government. The right people are the ones who will make the real-world decisions or their trusted agents. Without the decision-makers or their trusted advisors in the room, there can be no assumed transference of the experience or rapid, informed action when the catastrophe occurs.

Hearing testimony or reading reports is different than direct experience, including a synthetic one. Decision-makers must make time to be in the room to tell and experience the story. Absent the right people in the room, these “high level” events will continue to create thoughtful content that lies dormant, only to appear later and be waved around as an example of government failure and negligence.


8. MAJ Krisjand Rothweiler, U.S. Forces Korea

Strategic Wargaming is well suited to address catastrophic events in the exercise of two critical functions: negotiation and logistics. Wargaming, differentiated from simulations, provides the opportunity for players to make decisions in a dynamic environment where both the game environment and other players influence the path of the game narrative (Overview on this can be found here).

Negotiation will happen in any catastrophic situation, foreign or domestic, and is one aspect of an emergency that can be the hardest when time is short, and emotions are high. We often know what we have on hand in terms of supply or where those things need to go. But the difficulty in this situation is making good decisions in a timely manner in such a way that stakeholders not only abide by but support those solutions. Negotiation must occur between federal and state agencies, government and private sector, and institutions and individuals, all of which may be represented as players in the game. Wargaming provides an opportunity to make these decisions in a “safe” space with multiple perspectives considered.

A Matrix-style wargame is one based on argumentation and rhetoric where the players drive the course of the game with only limited interference from a control element. The game, by design, internalizes player decisions and feeds them back into the environment, forcing players to realize and adjust to the outcomes of collective decisions. In doing this, players and observers can understand the consequences of decisions, the perception and impact on other groups (represented as players) and can analyze their qualitative effect over the course of the game for second and third order effects.

The second area of crisis response that lends itself to gaming is macro logistics planning (simply demonstrated by the classic “Beer Game”). While simulations are valuable for calculating consumption rates and load plans, they do not offer a dynamic environment under which gross planning concepts can be exercised. In wargaming, both the other players and the game mechanics can provide obstacles and opportunities to logistical and operational planners that will force the consideration of the operational environment as an imperfect situation.

Obstacles such as damaged lines of communication, sabotage, or loss of international agreements provide planners the opportunity to consider the completeness and adaptability of crisis operations support. Similarly, unexpected opportunities, such as indigenous aid and volunteer labor (both actual and recent occurrences with USFK in dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic) identify (welcome) challenges of incorporation into the civil or military logistics system

While not a diagnostic tool for planning, Wargaming can aid in the practice of decision making or the identification of plan weaknesses prior to publishing and execution.


The views expressed in this Whiteboard Exercise are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Time lapse track of Hurricane Andrew, August 23-25 1992 from right to left.

Photo Credit: NASA

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