By Posey, Tofte, and Wheaton
Joint warfighters can leverage wargaming to practice the art of influence
Depending on your background, when someone mentions the word “wargame,” it may immediately conjure up thoughts of thumping your friends in a fiery and intense game of Battleship, or maybe it reminds you of epic World War II battles you repeatedly enact when you break out Axis and Allies. Even more relevant, it might remind you that you still have hours left planning and scheming as you prepare for the upcoming marathon of Dungeons and Dragons. If you fall into the above categories, you may have been mocked by family and friends at some point during your gaming life, but in reality, you should be commended. You proved a point. You demonstrated that commercial wargames, when played with deliberate, calculated, and committed attention, can stimulate new levels of thinking.
A small team of us at the U.S. Army War College, the service’s senior professional military education school in Carlisle, PA, recently noted how commercial games can help foster new levels of thinking. In an elective course entitled “The Joint Warfighter and the Information Environment” (JWIE), we incorporated the commercial wargame War of Whispers into the curriculum to help students stretch their intellectual muscles and apply information, influence, and deception concepts studied and discussed in bold and creative ways.
From 2015 to 2021, we did not teach an Information Operations elective at the U.S. Army War College. After this seven-year hiatus, an instructor cadre of information warfare professionals at the Army War College took a dated syllabus from the “Information Operations 101” course, updated it with new doctrine, terms, ideas, and concepts, and rebranded it as JWIE. The JWIE course now focuses on how information enables and supports military commanders to understand situations and control their forces. Further, the course delves into how senior military leaders can leverage information to inform audiences and influence foreign actors in competition and armed conflict. Wanting to provide students with an experiential learning opportunity that used information and the tools of influence as its focus, we looked to the wargame War of Whispers as a teaching aid.
Commercial wargames offer an experiential learning tool for warfighters to hone their judgment.
Many educators ask, “Why wargame?” In Why Wargaming Works, Peter Perla and Ed McGrady argued thus: “It is believed that the power of a wargame is the ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game.” Wargames have long been used to develop the practical and critical skills necessary for warfighters. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction (CJCSI) on Officer Professional Military Education Policy (CJCSI 1800.01F) urges the incorporation of wargaming into Professional Military Education (PME) curricula and courses because senior leaders firmly believe wargames are a powerful learning tool. Evolving scenarios can help students or “wargamers” refine their decision-making. Allowing multiple scenarios to play out in controlled environments enables players to incorporate concepts, ideas, and models, identify risks while seeking out opportunities, improve collaboration and teamwork, and, perhaps most importantly, for PME professionals to improve and enhance strategic and critical thinking.
Leveraging Perla’s knowledge again, the instructor team identified three ways playing wargames would benefit students.
- Informing and refining strategic plans – Wargaming provides a platform for decision-makers and military strategists to develop and refine their decision-making skills. It offers an opportunity for commanders and strategists with different strategies to assess the potential outcomes of their decisions. In other words, wargaming can help our senior-level war college students refine their decision-making skills and make better-informed decisions in real-world situations.
- Identifying potential risks and opportunities – Wargaming allows individuals and organizations to explore challenging scenarios and identify potential risks and opportunities. By simulating different situations, wargaming can reveal unexpected outcomes and highlight areas of weakness in strategic plans.
- Building strategic empathy – By assuming the role of “Red” (the adversary), strategic leaders can better understand the enemy’s capabilities, intentions, and likely courses of action. In addition, this firsthand experience helps players anticipate and counter the adversary’s strategies and tactics during real-world operations.
While the goal was to achieve these three benefits of wargaming, our team did not have the time to create a new wargame, so we looked to games that were already “on the shelf.” But the options are seemingly endless when incorporating wargames into PME. From computer-generated games to virtual reality simulations, there is plenty to choose from when selecting from the wargame menu. One such choice that has gained traction in recent years is commercial games. Although designed with a different audience in mind, these games can provide PME students with an engaging training experience tailored to specific course learning outcomes.
Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) wargames differ from traditional military simulations or games in that they are not explicitly developed for military purposes. These wargames, designed primarily for entertainment purposes, are created by developers who are not necessarily military experts. However, an advantage of COTS wargames is that they tend to have simpler rules and quicker gameplay than wargames designed for just a military audience. Additionally, by modifying the game’s scenarios, objectives, and rules, these games can suit the needs of professional military classrooms, as proven by our partners and allies when they experimented with COTS wargames. A COTS game proved to be what we needed.
Our primary intent was to employ a COTS game that could 1) be quickly and easily learned and 2) support the course learning objectives. Time was also a factor. Since COTS games are easy to acquire, we knew we could quickly integrate one into our four-week, nine-lesson course. So, we shopped around. As we selected and screened games, we thought about how COTS wargames would allow students to experiment with Cialdini’s time-tested principles of influence. We chose War of Whispers.
War of Whispers is a tabletop game created by Jeremy Stolzfus and published by Starling Games in 2019. The game’s players use deception, concealment, influence, information, misinformation, and traditional warfare to gain and maintain control of power over five different empires. The winner is the player who can manipulate and orchestrate the rise and fall of the empires to that player’s advantage. War of Whispers stands out for its blend of strategic decision-making, hidden information, and thematic storytelling. It rewards cunning tactics, careful planning, and adaptability to the ever-changing landscape of the game. With its immersive gameplay and intricate mechanics, War of Whispers offers an engaging learning experience for even the most seasoned military student.
Gameplay reinforced lessons in deception, concealment, and information advantage.
During the first round of War of Whispers, the students were focused on understanding the rules and mechanics of the game instead of applying the information lessons and concepts. However, after a complete run-through of the game, the students understood the game mechanics, and we started a second round. The next play-through was noticeably different. Being more comfortable with gameplay, the students were more engaged and focused on what they were doing and what others were scheming. Students began to leverage deceptive tactics, form alliances among warring parties, and “talk trash” across the table, attempting to influence their opponents to act or not act in specific ways. We could debate the efficacy of actual students’ subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) table talk, but we saw the students demonstrating the art of influence as they played War of Whispers.
During the after-action review (AAR), students discussed several takeaways from the wargame that centered around the concepts of influence and deception and how achieving an information advantage was (or was not) beneficial in securing their victory. The students’ biggest takeaway, even when playing a simple game like War of Whispers, was that changing another person’s behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes is far more complex than many initially thought. Students discussed how understanding their opponent’s actions requires that they first genuinely understand their opponents’ intentions and motivations. Students also noted that gaining and maintaining a fleeting information advantage is difficult. Their feedback was that achieving that advantage was more complicated than they imagined.
While no game can fully replicate the deliberate, detailed planning involved in military deception (MILDEC), playing War of Whispers also provided an opportunity to discuss the most critical aspects of MILDEC. Playing the wargame allowed students and instructors to focus on three truths of military deception. First, the military objective (or the game’s objective) takes precedence over any deception effort. Second, MILDEC and operational security (OPSEC) are two sides of the same coin. Finally, Magruder’s Principle- getting the deception target to see what they want to see- is the first MILDEC maxim for a reason.
Army doctrine reminds us that the MILDEC goal must always support the military objective. When crafting the friendly advantage that hopefully results from employing deception, Joint Publication 3-13.4, Military Deception, emphasizes the importance of how deception must always support the military objective. This idea proved true during the game. Although it is fun to cloak your intentions and mislead your opponents in “War of Whispers,” the winners of the match always noted how they focused on ensuring their #1 and #2 supported kingdoms captured the most cities. Deception for deception’s sake is not a proper use of resources in military operations or during a wargame.
Achieving surprise with deception is possible, but it must go hand in hand with concealment. Herbig and Daniel in their work Strategic Military Deception noted that cover is at the center of any deception effort. In modern-day verbiage, OPSEC must complement any deception effort. Players noted they could not cover all their actions and still win. In real-world military operations, it is impossible to hide everything, so proactively guarding critical indicators for one aspect of your strategy is more effective than not attempting to hide everything. Operation Fortitude South, the Allies’ WWII deception effort that hoodwinked Hitler into believing that the Allies would amphibiously assault the Pas de Calais vice Normandy carefully orchestrated OPSEC measures into the plan. During Fortitude South, the Allies constructed the fictitious First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), commanded by the swashbuckling General Patton. The FUSAG famously showcased rubber tanks, seemingly alive tent cities, and a cacophony of bogus radio calls. However, OPSEC measures proved essential to the deception’s success. For instance, all but the senior commanders of the actual invasion force did not know where the Allies would conduct their amphibious assault until days before the invasion. Proactively, Allied fighter aircraft would vigorously defend decoy invasion forces at low altitudes so that German reconnaissance planes flew higher and produced lower resolution photographic evidence.
Although impossible to know, it is logical to hypothesize that Hitler believed an Allied invasion would launch across the Strait of Dover because Hitler planned to launch an assault against the UK across the channel’s narrowest point during his abandoned Operation Sea Lion. In this manner, the Allies leveraged Macgruder’s Principle. Magruder’s Principle is the first doctrinal MILDEC maxim for a reason. This MILDEC maxim states that it is far easier to deceive an enemy using pre-existing biases than to change his mind. During Desert Storm, Coalition planners leveraged Magruder’s Principle to mislead Saddam Hussein into believing that the main assault would come from a USMC amphibious assault, not from the West via the now-famous “Left Hook.” Saddam and his commanders believed the Coalition invasion would come from Kuwait’s south or the sea. Likewise, during our brief wargame, the students who did succeed in deceiving their opponents admitted that they played on others’ hopes for “wishful thinking” or thoughts of a potential partnership.
Considering War of Whispers’ quick set-up time and light workload to play and debrief, the teaching team found that playing this commercial off-the-shelf wargame paid off. For the most part, students met the PME learning objective of a wargame and our goals of using wargaming as a teaching tool – identifying risks and opportunities, refining strategic plans, and understanding “Red.” While the students may not have reached a new level of expertise, they reinforced their strategic thinking skills by simulating different scenarios. The students stated that testing different strategies helped them think critically and creatively. Further, they learned that navigating the human dimension, even against just three other opponents, leads to complex situations. The most beneficial aspect of this particular experiential learning opportunity our students articulated was how difficult it is for warfighters to understand an adversary’s intentions fully.
In future iterations, the instructors will incorporate changes to the gameplay to better replicate different aspects of fog and friction for the player’s decision-making. Further, we plan to make the game a more successful learning event this academic year by making the students outline their strategies with the principles of influence before gameplay to reinforce our educational objectives. Hopefully, these actions ensure that the War of Whispers experience aligns more with our teaching outcomes. We are also actively seeking out other wargames that can help us apply the tenets of influence and military deception basics.
The way forward: educators must experiment with experiential learning.
For those seeking an immersive and strategic gaming experience in the “human dimension” of the information environment, War of Whispers offers a unique opportunity to test your skills in a world of political intrigue. Playing the game can hone one’s strategic decision-making, adaptability, critical thinking abilities, and understanding of the complexity involved in influence. Further, it allows students to practice deception in an experimental environment and better understand broad concepts in the art of persuasion. As such, it offers an opportunity for educators who want to teach information advantage experientially. So whether you are a trailblazer in gaming or just looking to create a memorable experience for your students regarding the nature of information advantage, consider using COTS wargames to teach. Our team took a chance on War of Whispers and found the payoff high for the required effort. Using War of Whispers helped our elective students (all senior joint warfighters) comprehend and apply critical concepts when navigating the information environment.
About the Authors
CDR Michael Posey is an active-duty Navy officer. Col Steven Tofte is an active-duty Air Force officer. Mr. Joseph Wheaton is an Army civilian. All three currently teach in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations for the resident education program at the School of Strategic Landpower at the U.S. Army War College.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army War College, Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.