Professional Wargaming: Game Design at the Command & General Staff College

Brant Guillory, 1 December 2018

The US Army Command & General Staff College (CGSC) recently launched a new program for students there to pursue an interest in game and sims for training purposes, and end up with a Masters Degree at the end of it all.  We’ve got a more detailed conversation coming up with Dr James Sterrett, who oversees the program, but for now, we thought we’d have a chat with a few of the students who recently completed their degrees and are now back in circulation in the Army, equipped with a wider toolbox of gaming experience.

 

 

What’s your gaming background (if any)?  Was there much exposure to professional military wargaming beyond the usual MDMP / training exercises?

Mr Williamson:  I have been wargaming since childhood with the only American Heritage series, a multi-level submarine game, a cool tank game, the great Carrier Strike and others.

For board wargames, my first experience was my dad getting us to play Avalon Hill’s Luftwaffe. Then in 1978 or 1979, I became engrossed in the original Squad Leader, Third Reich, and Bismark and numerous others. Then in the mid-80s the Milton Bradley Axis and Allies and the like started to take up more time. In the 90s it was the computer wargames (actually it started in 80 or 81 with Cris Crawford’s Eastern Front).

Then, as with everyone life gets in the way from the late 90s until about 2015 when I went into a game store in the DC area and saw ASL Starter Kit 1. I thought, “What in  the world? Is this still being published? Are people still playing old wargames?” And next thing you know I was hooked back into it. VASSAL became very important as my assignment took me to different countries where finding wargamers wasn’t going to  be easy.

MAJ Clayton:  I am not what you consider a “gamer.”  I came into the MMAS program from MCTP (Mission Command Training Program), operating as a commander for they Hybrid Threat Divisions. I see the MMAS wargaming less as a hobby and a resource to apply to our military wargaming development.  It can be apply to change an individual or groups cognitive thinking.  Or applied to a scenario in order to develop creative thinking and move away from the standard manual tactical and operational moves.

 

What inspired you to tackle this program?

Mr Williamson:  Well, with my long history, I thought it would be fun to get into the nitty-gritty of designing one from start to finish. Everyone who plays games modifies the rules of all games from time to time, but I had never designed one from scratch.

MAJ Clayton:  My time with MCTP, Canadian Army, and NATO-France. Armies that lack resources conduct scenario design training and it provides considerable value that cannot be attained through NTC tactical training.  Analog scenarios can provide the same value but with minimal resources.

 

What was the biggest misconception you had going in that got shattered?  How quickly did it happen?

MAJ Clayton:  Scenarios do not provide absolute answers.  Too many realistic variables to obtain resolution. Using realistic current scenarios may be as harmful as it is helpful.  The subject immediately associates answers because the simulation represents and equation.  This may be a cognitive perception trap and has to be addressed to each player.

Mr Williamson:  How easy it would be. There’s just a staggering number of variables that need to be considered when designing a game. Everything from who the target audience is to mechanics to the graphics requires a great deal of work and each influences the other.

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What was the most enjoyable part of the curriculum and what made it fun?

Mr Williamson:  Seeing what each person came up with and how they brought their experiences into the game. There are two that stick out to me: a neat Civil War game where logistics played a very important role in the game, more so than any other game I have played, and this intelligence operating game that was to teach players how to integrate all sorts of intelligence assets on the battlefield. I don’t think the intelligence game designer stayed with the program, but I think his game in its final form would have been great.

MAJ Clayton:  Developing new simulation techniques.  I develop my games from a standard, minimal base and build upon them.  Some mechanics work well as a stand along, but may not fit into the entire game design.  As you conduct game plays you are constantly trying to achieve a healthy balance with the mechanisms; as well as with entertainment.  Entertainment facilitates though process.

 

What did your peers in other programs think of you taking courses about games & simulations?

Mr Williamson:   Nobody ever said anything different than any other program. It was just another program that peers didn’t care one way or the other.

MAJ Clayton:  At first they thought the program was easy, but quickly realized the work associated with the program.  Many enjoyed listening to our game systems and the mechanisms used to conduct simulations.  In the end, almost all were impressed with the possible applications of our game designs.

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What was the toughest part of the program for you, and why?

MAJ Clayton:  Finding an end point.  The game system can always be built upon.  As a creator you are always striving for perception.  You will never achieve it.  I wanted to expand the logistical mechanics of the simulation, but could not achieve a happy medium.  I needed an outside perspective to tell me to stop and be happy with the current design.

Mr Williamson:  Two aspects: On the technical side, I’m not a computer graphics person or anything, so designing components and maps and all that was very painful for me consumed far too much of my time because I was not only designing a game but also having to learn how to use basic computer graphics programs that others were naturals at.

On the  design side: the toughest part was taking my subject, the current conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the thousands of variables that influence the battle and reducing them all to a manageable size that gives a game that captures what is going on, but is still playable. Not easy.

For example, out of all the armed groups, which ones do you use in the  game? How do you simulate poaching? How do you  model the importance of mineral mines on the conflict? How do you simulate confusion over chain of command and joint operations? What about weather? Diseases? Air assets? Natural disasters? funding cuts? Political efforts? Economics? etc etc

 

Any subject can be modeled as a game once you figure out who your audience is and what you want to simulate.

What’s the biggest takeaway from the overall program, and how do you intend to apply it to your career going forward?

Mr Williamson:  Any subject can be modeled as a game once you figure out who your audience is and what you want to simulate. In the future, rather than my staff relying on countless briefing papers and the like to get an idea of what is happening, I want to design simple simulators they can manipulate the variables and other factors influencing whatever we are working on.

Many educational books and articles will tell you simulations will greatly enhance their understanding and knowledge.

MAJ Clayton:  My biggest overall takeaway from the program was the same I came in with; the application of analog game simulations to wargaming.  The simulations may not provide solutions, but the mechanics provide increased accuracy to wargaming.  If properly applied will increase the though-process during MDMP.

 

Special thanks to MAJ Clayton and Mr Williamson for taking the time to discuss their experiences with us.  Look for more inside information about this program to come from Armchair Dragoons.

 


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Professional Wargaming: Game Design at the Command & General Staff College

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