War Games

Planning can be regarded as a way in which to catch a ‘glimpse’ of the future, giving an opportunity to be aware of possible surprises in advance. One of the methods used by the military to catch this glimpse of the future is by the simulation of battles on a large map table. The idea was to get an understanding of the possible responses of an opponent, given the possible dispositions of their own forces. This formed a fruitful basis for ideas about:

  • What to do when the battle was won;
  • When is a stalemate inevitable;
  • Or when has the (simulated) battle been lost?

The use of War Games goes back many centuries. In the sixteenth century the Dutch Prince Maurice, with the help of toy soldiers, simulated battles of his troops against the Spaniards

Modern Wargaming grew out of the military need to study warfare and to ‘re-enact’ old Battles for learning purposes.

In the beginning of the 19th century the Germans introduced the ‘Kriegsspiel’. In the Kriegsspiel both parties compete with each other in a battle in which both act as the ‘enemy’. Everything happens according to strict rules that were usually based on the study of battles lost and won in the past. These rules acted as the ‘benchmark’. Count Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff (1858 88) was a great advocate of war games and the stunning Prussian victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) is partly credited to the training of Prussian officers with the Kriegsspiel.

Both before and during World War II the Japanese and Americans also used this method to test the feasibility and possible outcome of their plans. The Japanese, for example, used it to prepare their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in early December 1941, in detail.

Admiral Chester Nimitz stated: “The war with Japan was re-enacted so many times by the American Navy commanders and by so many people in so many different ways, that nothing which happened during the war was a surprise… except the [Japanese] suicide tactics toward the end of the war, [which] we had not visualized.”

In 1937 the British Air Research Station was given the task to research the practical uses of a new promising radio-echo detection system that was later dubbed radar. The word operational was inserted into the group’s research title to set off what they were doing from traditional research. Thus was born Operational Research (OR).

The idea of Operational Research was developed further and was very effectively applied in WWII. It later evolved into computerized analytical war games in which many factors could be brought into play. Now permanent war games departments have been established in every modern army.

War games, as invented by the military, can be fruitfully applied in business situations. Methods for conducting business ‘war games’ have become available as management games and are now widely used to train employees. The use of this tool as a training method was especially stimulated at American Universities and quickly spread to Europe. The use of computers further perfected these simulation games.

But the use of wargaming by top management to simulate and test actual strategic plans is rare. As far as we know simulation models based on war games theory are seldom used in corporate life to test the possible outcome of strategic decisions, even though simulation programs based on well known business models have become more and more available.

Plan conferences are another form of plan testing that has some resemblance to war games. To accomplish better cooperation between different weapons in the American and British Army, huge planning conferences were organized. A plan that is to be developed is divided into modules and every module is tested in multi-disciplinary staff conferences. Finally, the recombined plan is subjected to massive ‘plan rehearsals’ in a theatrical environment where the commanders of the combined forces with their staff and many experts test the plan and its alternatives to ensure a meticulously and carefully planned outcome.

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