Book Review: The Craft of Wargaming by Jeff Appleget, Robert Burks, and Fred Cameron

Topic & Content

A textbook/guidebook for people interested in learning how to develop and use analytical wargames. The book is organized as follows:

  • Part I: Foundations
    • Ch. 1 Analytic Wargaming
    • Ch. 2 Craft of Wargaming
    • Ch. 3 Wargaming Characteristics
    • Ch. 4 Wargaming History
    • Ch. 5 Analytic Wargaming Fundamentals
  • Part II: Fundamentals
    • Ch. 6 Initiate
    • Ch. 7 Design
    • Ch. 8 Development
    • Ch. 9 Conduct
    • Ch. 10 Analysis
  • Part III: Planning and Management
    • Ch. 11 Planning and Managing an Analytic Wargame
    • Ch. 12 Course of Action Wargaming
    • Ch. 13 Special Considerations for Less Structured Wargames
    • Ch. 14 Educational and Experiential Wargames
    • Ch. 15 Best and Worst Practices
  • Appendix 1 Practical Exercise Zefra Brief
  • Appendix 2 Zefra Scenario
  • Appendix 3 Practical Exercise Solutions
  • Appendix 4 Wargaming Gateway Exam
  • Appendix 5 Case Studies in Wargaming Design
  • Appendix 6 The Crisis in Zefra: A Matrix Game

The book is divided up into three parts. Part one discusses the history and characteristics of wargames. Gradually, the focus narrows down to studying analytical games. Part two lays out a five-step process for creating, conducting, and analyzing analytical games. In order to help the reader develop practical skills in wargame design, the book presents a peacekeeping scenario on the fictional South Pacific island of Zefra. After each chapter in this part, a series of practical exercises linked to the Zefra scenario have the reader go through each stage of wargame development (initiate, design, development, conduct, and analysis). Part three of the book addresses further considerations for managing wargames, different types of wargames, and ends with a discussion of best and worst practices.

Several of the appendices provide further information needed to conduct the Zefra wargame. In particular, Appendix 6 gives the reader an example of one way to conduct the Zefra game. Appendix 4 is a simple multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blanks exam that reviews the basic points discussed in the book. Appendix 5 covers a variety of wargames that the authors and their students conducted at the Naval Postgraduate School for real government sponsors.

Thesis

The goal of this book is to provide readers with a basic understanding of the use of analytical wargames and to give them a basic skill set to continue their own learning and development as a wargamer.

Author’s Background

Both Jeff Appleget and Robert Burks are retired U.S. Army colonels with experience in the artillery and infantry, respectively. Fred Cameron was a civilian analyst for the Canadian Department of National Defense. All three authors have experience in teaching operations analysis and wargaming at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Critical Observations

Pros:

The best parts of this book are the practical exercises involving the Zefra scenario that give the reader an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned.

One interesting thing I learned is that analytical games aren’t necessarily focused on producing quantitative data. Sure, some analytical games can produce numbers via mathematical models, but the core data is qualitative and they’re designed to provide insights into what decisions the players made and why. To that end, the authors also note that wargames don’t have to involve complex rules, setups, or computers. It can be as simple as a seminar-style game where the players sit in a circle and discuss their moves while a facilitator guides the game and data collectors record the player’s decisions. Panels of experts can be brought in or dice, number tables, and spreadsheets can be used as adjudication tools.

Another interesting thing I learned is that well-executed and useful analytical wargames depend heavily on creating a focused set of essential questions to answer and a Data Collection and Management Plan (DCMP) for the game that gathers the appropriate data to answer those questions. In those respects, it’s very much like developing a lesson plan for teaching or a thesis to a paper. If you don’t have a clear learning objective/specific questions to answer, and a way to assess for that learning or a clear point to your writing, then you’re going to be addressing too many broad issues and your lesson/paper will come off as weak and unfocused. Furthermore, you don’t just jump into a wargame and play it. A lot of pre-work goes into developing and playtesting the game to make sure that it does what you want. Then you need to be sure that you’re collecting the appropriate data that answers your questions when you do the analysis. In short, no wargame can address every possible question or issue, lest it becomes too complex. Game designers need to narrow the problem down, design a game with the appropriate mechanics to assess the said problem, and then ensure that they’re collecting the relevant data to draw appropriate insights and conclusions off of. Have a clear point and a clear plan.

Certainly, many people can draw parallels between basic wargame design and video game development from this book. Many of us have played video games that were horribly buggy and mechanically broken upon release; where it seems like the developers got lost somewhere along the way to creating a game. In short, developing a decent game requires a clear set of objectives, thorough testing, and a plan to see it through to completion with continued support.

While the authors make note of the use of analytical wargames as professional training tools (e.g. for military officers & planning operations) they also note that many practitioners don’t really have a good understanding of how to design wargames, and by extension, how to properly use them. Much of the book aims to remedy that deficiency and give the reader a solid foundation with a series of step-by-step exercises to build their skills. As a result, I came away from this book with a newfound appreciation for analyzing the ludic elements in wargames and how they’re designed to achieve their objectives. I want to look more into how the games are designed!

Cons:

The authors make it clear that this book is largely focused on analytical wargames, and there’s only a brief discussion of educational and experiential games and their value. Furthermore, this book does seem to limit its focus to professional wargaming and the development of the player as a potential professional analytical wargamer, as oppose to a hobby wargamer. Perhaps it would be better if a lengthier comparison between analytical, experiential, and educational wargames were provided (along with some more discussion of hobby wargaming)*.

*My subsequent reading into the various types of wargames and wargame design indicates that there’s something of a divide between professional analytical games used by the defense/intelligence community, and hobby wargames that are played for enjoyment and/or historical research. If you’re more interested in the latter, then this book’s focus on analytical games can come off as somewhat stuffy. Consequently, I’ve come to understand that this book is far more geared towards the professional side of wargaming (with their use of analytical games), rather than the hobby side which focuses on different aspects of gaming and historical scenarios. Knowing what I know about the differences between the professional and hobby side of the field, I’m more lenient on this book since it provides the reader with more insight into designing professional analytical wargames.

Given that this book was published in 2020, I was surprised that there wasn’t any further discussion of using digital computer simulations as a means of “methods, models, and tools.” (i.e. as an adjudication tool for determining game results.) There’s not a single mention of well-known computer simulations like Harpoon or Command: Modern Operations, or on other bespoke computer programs used by some of the war colleges. In fact, the authors only vaguely mention computer models and simulations in passing and they seem to be a little dismissive of using digital platforms as tools to enhance learning. However, this may be due to the fact that they often discuss using analytical games in a professional or classroom setting, so time, money, and accessibility restrictions may prohibit them from acquiring, learning, and using advanced computer models and simulations. (Well-known wargame designers like James Dunnigan and Philip Sabin make good arguments in favor of the greater transparency and adaptability of manual wargame mechanics versus computer simulations and the “black box” that is their programming.) In contrast, the authors seem to be focused on using wargames in a professional capacity, rather than as a hobby, so that may also be why they make no mention of commercial wargames and computer simulations. They also note that analytical wargames are best suited for studying hypothetical future scenarios, as oppose to historical ones and that the professional community (war colleges, etc.) prefer seminar-style wargames over other formats due to their flexibility and ease-of-use. Furthermore, the authors specifically note that a computer model or simulation, by itself, is NOT a wargame. Their definition of an analytical wargame hinges on the game containing human decision-making elements between two live players. Apparently player vs. artificial intelligence doesn’t count (they briefly mention A.I. but give no definitive answers regarding human players playing against advanced A.I.). In appendix 5 on wargame case studies, they note only one case study that used a digital simulation as an adjudication tool, but they highlight the program’s limitations and largely note that the students were expecting its programming to be more capable than it was.

I’m somewhat inclined to disagree with them about computer simulations. In my opinion, as with any adjudication tool, the proper tool needs to be chosen for the task at hand. A seminar-style game may be very flexible, but it may also heavily break player immersion and is largely reliant on the good judgement of the umpire. If a simulation isn’t suitable for the wargame’s objectives, then it’s going to seem inadequate. Of course, we’re not talking about state-of-the-art, super-advanced artificial intelligence, but a computer program can certainly be used to aid humans in their decision-making, to simulate certain human decision-making processes, and to enhance the data-processing capabilities of a wargame. If you have a lot of data to crunch, then a computer program can certainly speed up the process. However, the authors do favorably mention the utility of simple computer simulations and spreadsheets as adjudication tools.

My final gripe is that the book doesn’t offer much discussion on adjudication methods, overall. There is a discussion on methods ranging from seminar-style games and panels of subject-matter-experts to stochastic devices (dice or spreadsheets), and computer models. However, it doesn’t go much beyond describing them and the reader doesn’t get much in-depth guidance on the specific pros and cons of each method. I would have liked it if the authors provided more specific examples of each method or tool. Additionally, the example Zefra game in appendix 6 includes a model for using dice to determine kinetic engagements, but I had a difficult time understanding how they weighed certain results based on the dice rolls. I think it could’ve been better explained. That being said, a lot of this confusion is likely due to my inexperience with manual wargames (I still have a lot to learn in that area).

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Ultimately, this book serves as a very good introduction for those looking to get into the nitty-gritty of designing and playing professional analytical wargames. While I do have some reservations about the narrow focus on seminar-style games and the somewhat dismissive nature of using computers as adjudication tools, as a whole, the book is very insightful. The included practical exercises are useful and help the reader apply what they’ve learned. However, if you’re into designing and/or playing hobby wargames for their educational or experiential value, then you’ll probably be disappointed with this book. That being said, it does an admirable job of providing readers with a foundation of knowledge for conducting analytical wargames and serves as a good stepping-off point for the reader’s further personal development in the field.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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