How to run a wargame
Terry: Hi, I'm Terry Pattar. Welcome to this episode of the Janes podcast. On this episode, I wanted to talk about thinking about the future. This is a key part of intelligence, and it's one of the topics that really occupies my thinking, but also the thinking of us at Janes and the Janes intelligence unit in particular. And one of the things that we wanted to discuss in terms of thinking about the future is a technique called war gaming. I'm joined on this episode by Tate Nurkin in who's an expert in running war games and has participated in a lot of war games. Tate is the founder of OTH Intelligence and is a non- resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council part of their forward defense group at the Scowcroft Center. He's also a partner to One Defense and a senior associate with Janes and previously ran the Janes consulting services as well I should add for full disclosure, hiring me in the process. And yeah, definitely seems like it wasn't as long ago as it actually is.
Tate Nerkin: Well I don't make very many great decisions, but that was clearly at the top of the list.
Terry: Thanks Tate, your check is in the post. Well welcome to the podcast Tate. Thanks for joining us. And thanks for taking the time to talk about war gaming because this is a topic that I think is much misunderstood by people, and I think it'd be great to talk through the benefits of war gaming and what it is and how people can use it because it's something that we help our clients with a lot. And I think because it's a part of the genesis of Janes, it's part of the origins of Janes really in terms of the war games that Fred T Jane started off designing around tabletop Naval war gaming, and wanting to gather data and information to help improve the quality of those. I think that still runs through what we do today in terms of again, helping people understand and plan and prepare for the future. So yeah, maybe we can start off by talking about not necessarily what war gaming was back then, but what war gaming is now and what you think of as war gaming and the kind of stuff that you've been involved in.
Yeah, that's a great place to start. I think it is a great place to start because the term itself is one that has, at least in my experience over the last 20 to 25 years of doing games, it means a lot of different things to different people in different contexts. And so the vocabulary matters, how you talk about wargaming matters because I think there is a connotation that when you associate with wargaming, that it's military operational games, one side against the other, which is definitely part of what wargames are and can be. Frequently, I've been part of wargames where you had playing out scenarios tabletops, while at the same time, there are live live exercises going on. And those are very sophisticated games. And that's certainly, like I said, part of what more gaming is, a big part of it. But I look at it as a much broader methodological tool, one that has real intersections with scenario planning and with red teaming, which sometimes is frequently incorporated into wargames. But it's a tool that is designed to be very collaborative, very interactive, that brings together stakeholders or analysts or decision- makers to test planned strategies, policies, and tactics to explore new or uncertain landscapes, to identify and anticipate possible surprises and really to understand second and third order consequences of decision making as well, to play out decisions in a real time compressed environment. So to me, the core components of wargames or tabletop exercises is really built around bringing together these stakeholders, putting them in different groups or teams so that they can evaluate problems from different perspectives or even compete against one another, but it's to drive tension and make people think about the environments they're in or could be in in the future and to test and challenge their assumptions.
Terry: That's a really great description. And I think the way you framed it there in terms of it being a broader concept, I think is really useful because perhaps that's something that people don't often understand and actually that there's lots of different ways you can use wargaming. And one of the aspects that you touched on there, which is thinking through decisions and thinking about those second and third order consequences, et cetera, what's the sort of process you would go through in a war game to help them help facilitate that?
Tate Nerkin: Well sure. I think part of it is the environment you create. So war games are typically, I would say there are exceptions to every rule, but they really are almost always scenario based. So you put someone into a world that is somewhat different than the one they're in today and you take them out of their day to day environment and the day to day operational mentality, and you put them into this scenario and sometimes individuals have a hard time with that. So you explain to them not to fight the scenario, that's the first rule of war gaming, you don't fight the scenario. Part of the art of this is making sure you're asking them the right questions and creating the right environment and forcing individuals to consume information quickly and to make decisions almost to invoke their intuition because some of these scenarios might play out over months and you only have like four hours to progress the action. So I think putting them in a different environment, one that they may not be entirely used to or comfortable with. Asking questions that they may not be thinking about or may stretch their analytical filters and their thinking, bringing in people who know how to do this, how to facilitate war games is important. Yeah, so those were all core components of this. And then having a design that keeps people engaged, keeps people wanting to participate in the exercise I think is really important as well.
Terry: I've always been impressed by how big the control teams are with some of the war games that we've been involved in. And so yeah, it'd be good to get your thoughts on, firstly, the design and the preparation, what needs to go into that, how much effort does that involve? And then secondly, how important is the control function within a war game?
Tate Nerkin: Yeah, so on the design side, I always say that war gaming, because it's such a broad methodology and when we're talking this sort of expanded definition of board gaming, there's not really one way to do this, and that every war game design is going to be contingent upon, first and foremost, the objectives, not the analytical outcomes necessarily because you don't want to bias the outcome. You don't want to say," Well this is what we want the war game to say, let's design a game to say it." No, no, but you do want to design the war game around the objective. What problem are you trying to address? What plan are you trying to test? What tensions or trade- offs are you trying to understand? So that's where the first part of design comes in and then also design will have to incorporate administrative things like how many days, how big are the rooms? It's very mundane issues. How many people are going to be there? Those are all critical components because war games are built around teams and you don't want teams that have 20 people on them, you also probably want to avoid teams with one or two if you can. But I will say that there's a lot of preparation that goes into these events, just in terms of building a design and scenarios that are going to get you to the objective that you want to achieve, they're going to allow folks to discuss the issues that are most important to build teams. Team dynamics are really very important to build the read ahead materials that sometimes don't get read, but they're important and everyone at least has the opportunity to show up knowing what issues are going to be talked about and what the first scenario at least looks like. So there's a lot of prep that goes into these from an administrative and research side and also tinkering with the design all the way up to the game. And even during the game, sometimes you're making adjustments to scenarios and to the way you have structured the game in order to make sure that it's running smoothly.
Terry: Yeah, no doubt. Once you've completed all that preparation and as you've alluded to, hopefully people have read the read- ahead material because I know there's a huge amount of work that goes into that, but then you've got a control team, a facilitation team, which is running it. And you've been involved in that part of running those exercises. Maybe talk a little bit through that process. What does that involve? And from your perspective being on a control team, what are the kind of things you're trying to achieve or make happen as the game progresses?
Tate Nerkin: I think there are a couple of components. If you think about the war gaming continuum of what support for a war game typically involves, it starts with conceptualization, so understanding the impact and really start getting the objectives. And that can be a collaborative process between the war game designer and the key stakeholders. There's the research and preparation side, there's the design phase. And of course those two are really closely connected. The execution phase I think involves facilitation and it involves adjudication, which is basically control. Facilitation, I think it's probably not that difficult to put on a war game. It is much more difficult to put on an effective one. I think facilitation is so important to a good game because you are dealing with small group dynamics, and this is one of the big challenges associated with war gaming is you have a lot of people, frequently people with invested interests in the outcome of the game and how it progresses, sometimes with big egos, which is not a problem at all, but it does affect the dynamics of small groups. So you have to have people who can keep the teams on task. So you really have someone who can control a small group, keep them focused, and make sure that they're not throwing things at each other and screaming at each other. At a bigger game level, the game master, or the person who's in the control team, you want to make sure that you are creating enough friction to drive action in the game. You want there to be something, challenges that have to be assessed. You want to make sure that the game is asking questions that they wouldn't have asked in another context and you're forcing participants to stretch a little bit.
Terry: So just on that. So do you ever find yourself if you're in that situation where you're running a game where perhaps the participants are almost sticking to the script? I know there isn't a script, but they're almost being too predictable or that there isn't that friction being generated and how do you then make that happen?
Tate Nerkin: Well I think you change the rules. That's probably a little bit too flippant, but there are lots of ways to do it. And again, it depends on the design and all of that with all those caveats. If you're doing a scenario based game, injects are always a useful way. You change the scenario, you change the environment by saying," This has now happened." Now you want to be careful with these things. You don't want to make them so wild that it begins to stretch inaudible. But anyway, I would say that injects are one way. There's always the option of just telling the facilitators, " You've got to push these people a lot harder," which sometimes is the challenge, or you just change the structure. That is not unheard of. If the structure isn't working, then that needs to be addressed. So I think flexibility is another really important component of a successful game. It doesn't have to be, but I think being able to evaluate whether or not what you're doing is working and then on the fly have a couple of things in your back pocket that you can introduce to drive the game forward or make it more dynamic.
Terry: Yeah, and you mentioned a little earlier in terms of when people are involved in these types of exercises, sometimes they can be very fixed in their views on what the answer is to the question that you're trying to address. If they're coming with preconceptions, how do they break away from those preconceptions?
Tate Nerkin: Part of it is in the facilitation mode. And, and actually even in the read aheads, we always include at least one short article, sometimes more about the process of war gaming so that the individuals, again, who read the read aheads will show up knowing that this isn't just reciting what you do at work. We're trying to do something different here. We're trying to expand. And we also make a very clear point at the beginning of every exercise that I'm involved in that this is supposed to be A, collaborative and B, safe. So even though your boss is in the room, don't be afraid to, in a tactful way, say," I think that this is a better idea." That can be hard for anybody at any level, but we try and create environments and structured teams in ways where people are encouraged to feel safe about offering viewpoints that they wouldn't offer in their day to day jobs. Because that's the point in large in a lot of these exercises, that's the point. So that's part of it. And then from a facilitation perspective, you've got to know what questions to ask. You've got to know how to get people out of their... What are some things that surprised you? What are some things that you wouldn't think of that you're... Those types of questions that require people to evaluate the things that they aren't thinking about. That is a little bit of a challenge, but it's something that I think is a really important part of a war game.
Terry: Yeah, no, indeed, indeed. And what about getting a mixture of specialists or subject matter experts and maybe people who are more generalist coming to that topic with less knowledge? I don't know, I'm asking that question because I think probably in ones I've been involved in, I've looked around the room and I thought," Wow, there's a lot of really deep subject matter experts in this room. I don't feel like I don't know much about this subject. I felt like I did before I walked into the room, but now I'm not so sure." But then certainly from my experience, I feel like actually you could still contribute, there's still an important role to be played for having people who don't necessarily know in depth everything about the subject, but to what extent is that important? Having some people in the room who do have that subject matter expertise and others who don't?
Tate Nerkin: Getting the mix right is important. And actually I mentioned earlier that there are overlaps and intersections between war gaming and other alternative analysis methods. I mentioned scenario planning and red teaming, those are very obvious ones, but also things like devil's advocacy, where you actually put people into rooms whose job it is to be a little bit more controversial. That's another way to stimulate conversation, but who are just good thinkers and provocative, not insulting, but provocative and who can help work with the facilitator to drive some of the actions. So getting the mix right between subject, deep dive subject matter experts, good thinkers, and people who are going to contribute big ideas and be able to think strategically about the problem is really important. It is. And again, we encourage, part of the facilitation challenge is to encourage people to participate and to make sure they understand that they're not going to get penalized for participation professionally or personally. So yeah, I think it's critical that these exercises be collaborative and that they, I think in most cases, incorporate multidisciplinary perspectives. And so you get the subject deep dive subject matter expert, you get someone with a little bit broader perspective. Again, you've got to get that mix right. And sometimes that's not possible because for all sorts of administrative or resource reasons, but you try and do the best you can with the people that are going to be participating in the exercise.
Terry: I have to admit I've quite enjoyed playing that sort of devil's advocate role in those kinds of situation or at the very least asking questions, like Alexander's question around," Okay, what would it take to happen for you to change your mind?" Because sometimes I think with those sort of subject matter experts, they do have that fixed idea of what is going to happen in this scenario, in this situation. And yeah, it's just someone trying to open up their minds a little bit to facilitate that broader discussion.
Tate Nerkin: Exactly, and I'll give you an example. We did, many years ago, actually we did a gain for a company that was looking to break into the US government federal market a little bit more in their industry. And they didn't really have a lot of experience in the federal market and the US federal market has its own dynamic. And so we had these people who were all part of business development and marketing in different parts of the organization of this company. And then we brought in a handful of people who had served in DOD and in the national security community at various layers, a handful of people. And it was really interesting to watch how these people who have served either in the government or consulted into the government, interacted with people who really had very little experience and to see the clashing of expectations and assumptions was one of the most important things about that game, because you had this, again, if you just have folks who were part of the company, I don't think we would have had nearly as successful an exercise because they didn't have anyone to really challenge their assumption and be able to relate in a very personal way, some of the challenges that go, and opportunities, but challenges mainly, that go with doing business in the US federal space. And so having this mix of perspectives usually is really very important and very valuable and can generate some interesting outcomes.
Terry: It's interesting how many times actually on this podcast the challenges of federal procurement have come up. But it's a great example because I don't think it's one that many people would have thought of probably off the top of their heads when they're thinking about where to use war gaming. And so what are the types of... Maybe you can give us just a selection of some of the war games that you've been involved in, just to give an idea of the sort of range of questions or topics that can be addressed using war gaming.
Tate Nerkin: Yeah, sure. Like I said, when we think about war gaming more along the tabletop exercise definition. Yeah, it's an enormously broad and flexible methodology. So we've done, like I said, any sort of question where you're looking at, what are some of the trade- offs, what are some of the changes that we need to make, how do we test our assumptions and our strategies, here's a new environment or a new market that we're looking to get into, or here's a threat that we're trying to figure out a little bit better. All of these things can be gamed, so we've done exercises looking at the future of Syria and Iraq conflict. For a number of years ran those obviously you were involved in many of those looking at the future of those conflicts and games that helped developed scenarios that looked at potential futures and gamed those out over a day and a half, two days. I've done red team games, so games trying to understand competitor or adversary perspectives and decision- making processes and priorities. Looking not just as for military and security, but also for defense industry, understanding how their competitors might approach a specific capture opportunity, which I think was ultimately successful, the company ended up going on to win the capture opportunity. This was just input clearly into the pile, I'm not suggesting otherwise. Technology games where you're looking at investments in technologies and how those technologies might drive future strategic or operational or tactical advantage. And what trade offs do you have to make. The traditional operational or strategic war game, where you're actually looking at a scenario maybe five, 10 years into the future and playing out, testing your actual strategy that you want to stress test and understanding once you got past first contact, what sort of other outcomes might we see, what other competitions might we see? We've been involved in competitive strategy games, where you're just trying to understand what different asymmetries between competitors and how to exploit those asymmetries from your perspective and protect some of the vulnerabilities that those asymmetries create for you. So there's a full range. If you have a tough question and you're looking at trade- offs and you're looking at stress testing different plans and strategies, this can be a really useful methodology.
Terry: That's fascinating, just that list of different topics you've given there. The breadth is incredible in terms of what you can apply the technique to, and I guess always bearing in mind that it's about understanding the aims and the outcomes and what those outcomes will be, and it's not going to give somebody the right answer or this process isn't going to make a decision for an organization, it's just going to help them understand different consequences, et cetera. Is that one of the pitfalls though you find sometimes with war gaming, that people expect it to create an answer for them?
Tate Nerkin: Processing and communication and expectation setting is really important and it needs to be iterated throughout the process. But yeah, I think war gaming, like any alternative analysis technique, any future focus technique, can be a really important input. Rarely is it the only deciding input. So the outputs of a war game need to be taken alongside of probably a lot of other considerations and not just the analytical ones and frequently bureaucratic ones play a role as well, and what you do with the outputs of a war game.
Terry: When you talk about developing those different pathways, designing the exercise, et cetera. It's an inherently creative exercise, the whole endeavor. Do you feel like that's becoming harder? And what I'm alluding to there is we're now in a world that feels like there's a lot more uncertainty around.
Tate Nerkin: In some ways, yes. Because you do want to create scenarios that get people a little bit outside of their comfort zone. And now I think one of the good things that is going on is you're seeing more people begin to at least start to examine what would happen if there's a global pandemic, for example, that might have been not taken quite as seriously in the even recent past. But in another way, that helps because coming back to the first rule of war gaming, or even scenario planning exercises, don't fight the scenario. And a lot of people over the years, I've been in rooms where people would say this would never happen, or it would happen like this, or they'll just take the scenario and dissect every little bit of it. And of course some of that is important if you're getting really into the operational and tactical details of a game that's designed to examine those things, you want to make sure they're right. But the general knee jerk reaction that again, just a global pandemic that slows the global economy as much as we've seen over the last year, would never happen. That instinct, I think, is being tempered by some of the events that we've seen. So in that sense, maybe it gives a frame of you get a reference point to say," I know you think this isn't going to happen, but what we've even seen we're living through now, it can happen." And so I think maybe that does add a little bit of ammunition for the facilitator and for the adjudicator and the control team to be able to say that these things are within the realm of possibility. So let's not have the pushback that sometimes does slow games down.
Terry: Yeah, that's always I guess been one of those perennial challenges. Anytime you run an exercise like this, that there's going to be people who are very fixed in their views. And yeah, now there's more of a willingness perhaps to think about those things. That's interesting to consider.
Tate Nerkin: Because there has been so much of this awakening to the idea that disruptive events and black swans and gray inaudible and all that are happening, but you don't want to take it so far. Again, it's a little bit of a balance. And I think you know it when you see it kind of thing, when you've gone too far, if aliens are involved or something like that.
Terry: Sometimes you might set out to run a war game where you're exploring those very low probability but high impact scenarios. But yeah, I guess if it's not within that context and you're throwing things in that are completely out of the blue just in order to disrupt a scenario, then yeah I guess people will push back.
Tate Nerkin: That's right, that's right. So it's a difference, and we talked about injects earlier, if things aren't going quite the way, if there isn't enough tension or friction in the game, you have tools you can use to drive that. But again, you have to do it in a way that stays connected to the scenario you're in. But you make a great point, these types of exercises are really good for exploring scenarios that you haven't thought about before. Some of these other things like radiological bombs or something that people were talking a lot about, or political disruptions in countries that you weren't quite sure whether they would make a big strategic difference or not, or things like that that may seem low likelihood, but could be high impact and we ought to be thinking about because these are complex dynamics and we should be prepared for something like that to happen.
Terry: Yeah, no, that's really interesting. I think thinking about contingencies and planning for those, it always feels like as soon as the crisis arises, though, that contingency plans go out of the window quite often. Maybe there is a role there for war gaming to help embed some of that and help people think through actually what they would do with that scenario if it arises.
Tate Nerkin: Great relationships too. Again, we've talked about the inaudible value of war games, the testing, the exploring, all that, and the bureaucratic benefit of board games. But there's a personal benefit because even in this environment now where we're doing more games and exercises virtually, which, by the way, creates, in my mind, unexpected advantages and also some challenges, but it's not been as difficult as possible as maybe someone would think to do these virtual exercises. But you're still communicating with people. You're communicating with people that you're going to have to work with. If there is a crisis, these are the types of people that you're going to have to engage with. And now you may know them. I'll give you one really interesting and admittedly unique in my 20 plus years of doing this example. We were doing a first responders exercise, and a scenario in which two hurricanes hit this part of the world simultaneously. And so all the resources were stretched think. And I think it was a police officer said," My challenge would be I don't have any generators. I don't have enough generators to go around." And a fire fighter from the town next door was like," Well I've got like five generators in my basement. How about I give you one? And we can work something out." And so you actually have this conversation that never would have happened or maybe would have taken another moment of good luck to happen. And that connection was made. That's an extreme example, but it does mean that when these contingencies do happen and you've had conversations with people, some of whom you may be working with to respond, you have a shared experience and framework to move forward.
Terry: That's a great point. And I think actually thinking back to some of my experiences, some of those exercises that you've run, the Syria or Iraq example is a good one where we were exploring what might happen in the conflict over the next period of time, but just being part of that exercise and being involved and working with colleagues or other people within that exercise who I might not have otherwise been able to make time to talk to or really become aware of their expertise. It did help then kickstart conversations that took place beyond that war game. And you sort of revisit some of those ideas and thoughts and some of the narratives and scenarios that you were discussing on the exercise, because three months down the line, inevitably something happens or an event that happens something pops up in the news or whatever, and you think," Actually this relates to that war game we were on," and you revisit that connection and you talk to that person again. And so that's a really great point. It's good to hear that that's still feasible in this virtual world that we're in now.
Tate Nerkin: The advantage of the virtual games that I've done over the summer and the fall, they were really efficient. They were really efficient because no one wants to spend an extra minute on a Zoom call. crosstalk the minute people get things done and they don't mess around. And not to say that that happens in war games, but in an in- person and exercise, typically, there are times when you move from one room to the other, then you go to your breakout rooms, and that takes a little bit of time. There's always some time that bleeds away for social interaction and getting set up and having coffee. And so there's an efficiency to the virtual games.
Terry: When we're talking about war gaming and you've always talked about it being very broad in the way that it can be applied as a technique or a method. And there's so many different situations in which you can get benefit from running war games, but is there a limit to the utility of doing them in terms of the timeframe that you might look at?
Tate Nerkin: Yeah, I think there's obviously challenges if you're talking about what's going to happen in 2050, because there's only so much you can know about the development of technology, the development of relationships, all of the things that you would probably go into some sort of scenario. That said, it's not impossible. You just have to, and 2050 is a long way away, but it's not impossible to get out into the far future. You just have to be incredibly open and precise in your assumptions. So everyone has to know that this is the assumption that we made and this is why we made it and don't fight it. And then you also have to be very clear about the limitations of the game that goes out that far, because it's only going to be able to identify in broad strokes what the concerns will be. So I think there are clear limitations the further you get away, but also not to do things that are really, really close, to do things that are going to happen tomorrow or next week, that also has limitations because you're not asking people to think differently. You're asking people to evaluate what they do in a situation that is almost exactly like today, with the same people, the same dynamics essentially.
Terry: Yeah, no, indeed, indeed. You and I can talk about this type of stuff all day, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and get the benefits your experience on war gaming in particular and other alternative analysis techniques and things. But are there any other bits of advice you would give to anybody who's thinking about running a war game or the kind of things that they should be thinking about before they decided to go ahead with it?
Tate Nerkin: Yeah, I think one has to do with technology because I think it's really important. We touched a little bit on the collaborative technologies, the Zooms and the Teams and all of that, which has become important. You can do successful games virtually. But there also can be a tendency sometimes in larger, more sophisticated games to incorporate models, to incorporate data visualization tools, which can be really effective. They can add granularity. So it could be very powerful enabler, but proceed with a little bit of caution in how those tools are actually employed.
Terry: That's really interesting actually, because yeah, I think if it works well, I guess it can make the whole war game experience more immersive for the participants. For me, that's what the original tabletop war games are all about that Fred T Jane created, which was to make data and the information more immersive to help you understand what are the consequences of the different situations that might evolve. Thanks so much for your time and taking the time to join me and talk about war gaming.
Tate Nerkin: Yeah, no, this has been great Terry. You don't need to twist my arm to talk about war gaming or to talk to you. So thanks very much for the opportunity.