Lessons Learned From Wargaming

“We wargame because we must. There are certain warfare problems that only gaming can illuminate.” – Robert Rubel, Professor Emeritus, Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College.

Military organizations have been using games to train their officers and predict possible outcomes of future battles since the Prussian Army began using the game “Kriegsspiel” some 200 years ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kriegsspiel_(wargame)). This shouldn’t be surprising if we accept the notion that games are a biological adaptation in mammals to gain survival skills. In nature, play is the activity of practicing survival skills in low-urgency situations that can then be used in high-urgency, life-and-death situations. This is exactly the way the military uses wargames.

Could we use games to explore different supply chain options, just as the military uses games to explore different strategies? Could a supply chain game show us the best supply chain solutions the same way wargames show the best strategies? If so, what would that supply chain game look like?

Wargames are Serious Games

Let’s start by noting that there are two kinds of games: games designed for learning real-world skills – serious games; and games designed for having fun – entertainment games. Entertainment games are about fun, not about making us more skilled. And as a result, game design techniques used for entertainment games and for serious games differ in significant ways.

This article highlights some valuable techniques learned from a well established category of serious games – wargames. It shows how these same techniques can be applied to create a serious game for educating and training supply chain professionals.

Philip Sabin, is Professor of Strategic Studies in the War Studies Department of King’s College, London UK. In his book Simulating War (2014, Bloomsbury Publishing, http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/warstudies/people/professors/sabin/simwar.aspx) he explores using wargames as teaching tools and he describes effective techniques employed by wargames.

He explains wargames began as complex board games. And many of them still are. The game board they use is a map, and the game pieces are military units of different sizes and capabilities that are moved about on the map in order to achieve certain objectives. An example of such a game is shown in the picture below.

(photo courtesy of Nixie Pixel – http://www.nixiepixel.com/pc-strategy-game/)

Professor Sabin prefers these board games when teaching strategy to students and he claims they’re better learning tools than video games (Simulating War, pg. 23). Many of these board games have been digitized to make them more convenient, but they still work like the original games. The main features of these games are: 1) their data is highly realistic and taken from the real world; 2) they have little or no automation so players have to manually move every piece in the game; and 3) the rules can be redesigned by the game players.

Reality vs Playability in Games

The entertainment industry uses history as a theme for their games, but wargames seek to literally replicate and recreate history. So the data used in wargames for terrain, logistics, weapons capabilities, etc. needs to be as accurate as possible. These games are accurate enough to help decision makers get an understanding of where and how future conflicts might develop, and help historians replicate and understand why past conflicts happened as they did.

“The war with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise – absolutely nothing except the Kamikaze tactics towards the end of the war; we had not visualized those.”  US Admiral Chester Nimitz (Simulating War, pg. 58)

Such realism is lacking in entertainment games, and yet it’s a crucial element for learning real-world skills. Here is why: There’s a memory process called “chunking” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chunking_(psychology)) that takes place when we learn. It is basically a way for our brains to recall vast amounts of information. When the brain sees different bits of data that form a recognizable pattern, it groups them all together as one piece of information — a chunk of information.

For example, If you were shown the letters “hlbramdayatlailtme” for 3 seconds, and then asked to recall them, you would probably have a difficult time doing so. But if the letters were organized into a recognizable pattern such as the sentence, “Mary had a little lamb”, it would be easy to recall the letters because you have “chunked” thousands of patterns (sentences) related to the English language, and that improves your memory recall if you see a pattern you know.

The problem with entertainment games is that the patterns and information chunks learned by players are rarely transferable to the real world. For example, chess masters develop about 100,000 memory chunks for chess, which allows them to perform to a higher level than novices (Gobet, F., & Simon, H.A. (1996), “Recall of rapidly presented random chess positions is a function of skill,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3(2), pg. 159-163, http://theinvisiblegorilla.com/blog/2012/02/15/how-experts-recall-chess-positions/). But these chunks are NOT transferable to the real world. Chess masters have a far superior memory and skill in chess, but chess masters have the same memory capacity as chess novices in areas not related to chess.

This is why the use of realistic data and accurate models in educational simulations (or serious games) is so important; it enables skills developed in those simulations to be transferable for use in the real world. Otherwise playing games becomes nearly pointless as an educational or training exercise. Players may be getting better at the game, but if they can’t transfer those skills into the real world then there is little value being created.

Applying Techniques from Wargames to a Supply Chain Game

SCM Globe is a serious supply chain game, and like wargames, it uses real world data, and it uses a map of the world as its game board. This is shown in the screenshots below. These screenshots show the model of an actual supply chain for a company that makes furniture in Indonesia and sells to customers around the world. This model is created by defining four types of supply chain entities (products, facilities, vehicles, and routes) and placing them on a map of the world. They are the game pieces in this supply chain game.

2 Global Supply Chain
click on screenshots to see larger images)

SCM Globe leverages Google Maps (or any other mapping application such as Apple Maps, OpenStreetMap, etc.) to create its game board. Players are able to zoom in and out and place products and facilities in specific locations on the map. The information used to define products and facilities accurately reflects the real world. Vehicles and routes can also be carefully placed on the map, and the information used to define them is realistic as well.

3 Define Products

Because people can accurately model real supply chains in SCM Globe, they can be confident that the patterns they see in the simulations, and the chunks of information they learn, are transferable to the real world. This capability makes SCM Globe similar to wargames. In each case the same techniques are used to teach real-world skills.

Manual Games

A previous article in this blog (“Four Reasons to Use Simulations for Supply Chain Learning“), compared SCM Globe to a “supply chain abacus.” The ability to manipulate individual supply chain entities (products, facilities, vehicles, routes) enables people to see supply chain patterns that result. Just as an abacus user manipulating each bead in solving a math problem learns by seeing the mathematical patterns that result.

Seeing these patterns enables information chunking, and a powerful learning process ensues as more patterns are seen, and more information chunks are created and stored for use in the student’s brain.

Four Beads on Supply Chain Abacus

Philip Sabin has come to the same conclusion concerning wargames. He explains that “manual wargames” (games where you have to manually manipulate each piece) push students to understand the overall system that is created by all the individual pieces. They see how each piece relates to the other pieces on the board. The process of manually manipulating each piece requires a higher level of mental engagement than would be required if the pieces were automatically moved about by the game itself. This higher level of engagement is what focuses students’ minds and enables them to see the patterns and create information chunks.

“Manual wargames, by contrast, require all users to understand and apply the designer’s system for themselves if the game is not to remain an inanimate pile of paper and cards. This obviously requires a lot more intellectual effort from users, just as playing a piece of sheet music requires more effort and understanding than playing a CD, but it also makes the dynamics of the process much more open and explicit, giving users the scope to add their own interpretations and improvisations, and in the end perhaps to produce entire compositions of their own.” Philip Sabin (Simulating War, pg. 26)

Sabin explains that most video games used for entertainment have the components that make them work hidden because that makes for better entertainment. But this doesn’t allow students to grasp the inner workings of the game, so their overall understanding is diminished compared to the understanding developed by manual wargame users.

Modeling and Simulation Enable Deliberate Practice

Like wargames, SCM Globe is also composed of both modeling and simulation. The modeling part happens when players design their supply chains by creating the supply chain entities and placing them on the map. In this process players are exploring the map, defining products and demand, locating facilities, and creating vehicles and routes to move products between facilities to meet demand. Once this is done, students click on the “simulation” button, and the software runs the model as a simulation. It shows real-time readouts of cost and performance data for each of the facilities and vehicles. And it shows how long the supply chain will operate before a problem develops. When there is a problem, the simulation points out where the problem is and what caused it (for instance warehouse A ran out of product B).

6 Simulate Performnce

The benefit of combining modeling and simulation is that students can create supply chain models by defining and locating products, facilities, vehicles and routes on a map. Then in simulations, they quickly find out how well their models work. Students can play “what if” games and test out different model designs. They can change their models, simulate the effect of those changes, and keep improving their models until they get the performance they want.

It is this combination of modeling and simulation that allows for deliberate practice (also explained in a previous article “Four Reasons to Use Simulations for Supply Chain Learning“). Deliberate practice happens when students design a supply chain model, and see how it works and get immediate feedback on where performance problems occur. Then they make improvements right away and try again. This is the deliberate practice process, and it is critical for developing skills in any field.

Design Thinking

“if you can play them, you can design them” James F. Dunnigan, defense analyst, author and wargame designer (http://www.jimdunnigan.com/wargames.html)

Professor Sabin explains that the best way for students to understand the systems that drive war and successful strategies is to design wargames themselves. This he explains, is the ultimate challenge for students because they have to understand how the many different components in a wargame interact with each other (and how they interact in the real world). One of the main reasons he prefers using manual wargames instead of automated video wargames is because the ability to redesign the rules of the game encourages students to understand the details of how the game works. In automated video games students cannot rewrite the rules of the game because it would take a colossal amount of time, as well as require programming skills that most students lack.

SCM Globe also provides a similar ability to change the rules and to design new and unique supply chains. People can load one of the existing supply chain models, and change the model by adding new entities or changing existing ones as they wish. They can also create completely new supply chain models from scratch. Because people can modify existing supply chain models and create new ones, it gives them the opportunity to literally become a game designer, or more specifically, a supply chain designer. Students using SCM Globe to design supply chains are learning how to create supply chains that will also work well in the real world.


Effective games for learning use realistic simulations to help students acquire skills by seeing the consequences of different actions. Games that call for students to manually create and manipulate the individual pieces of their simulation models cause students to concentrate more deeply and understand more clearly the overall system that is created by the individual pieces.

Several important techniques borrowed from wargaming are used by SCM Globe to help students develop real world supply chain skills:

  • Data from the real world is used to create accurate supply chain models
  • Students can change existing supply chain models or create new ones by manipulating the data and location of each type of supply chain entity (products, facilities, vehicles, and routes)
  • Simulations show how changes to supply chain entities affect overall performance and reveal patterns enabling information “chunking,” and development of skills transferable to the real world
  • Manual movement and placing of individual entities helps students understand the overall supply chain system created by the different entities
  • Simulations provide students with immediate feedback on the performance of their supply chains and supports the deliberate practice required for skill development

Click here to see more about SCM Globe – http://blog.scmglobe.com/?page_id=257

[Co-authored by Michael Hugos – co-founder of SCM Globe, and Eugene Sheely – instructional designer located in Provo, Utah USA]

Copyright © 2015 by SCM Globe Corp.