The Tuesday Interview – Dr James Sterrett talks Brown Bag Wargaming

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With the recent launch of CGSC’s “Brown Bag” wargaming lunch program, we reached out to the guys at Ft Leavenworth to ask about how hobby wargaming is making its way (back) into the professional ranks ~

Brant Guillory, 07 February 2017

So there was mention of a “brown bag” lunch series of wargames for Army officers to come learn about this crazy hobby of ours, and – we’re assuming – learn how it can all tie into the profession of arms for their future benefit.  Can you tell us a little bit about how the series got started, and what the expectations were for the initial ramp-up of the program?

The idea for the Brown Bag Gaming Program came from our desire to provide a wider array of games that we can fit into our Training with Simulations elective course.  The more we thought about it, the more objectives we realized it might fill.

The core tenet of Brown Bag Gaming is that the development of simulations professionals requires the exploration and discussion of a wide variety of modeling and simulation approaches.  The best means of accomplishing this is to experience the models and simulations in action.  Less formally, that means playing games and thinking about them critically.


Therefore, the Brown Bag Gaming Program serves several interrelated purposes:

  • A Professional Development Event in which Command & General Staff College (CGSC) students, faculty, and staff (especially FA57s and CP36s), plus personnel from other organizations, can
    • Explore models & simulations;
    • Discuss models & simulations;
    • Meet similarly interested personnel from other organizations
      • Leading to improved cross-pollination of ideas and improved collaboration
  • An event in which CGSC faculty and staff can explore simulations of potential classroom interest
    • And can discuss what other simulations they might want, potentially leading to finding better-fit solutions
  • The creation of a mailing list of interested personnel to support discussion and collaboration, which in turn should support professional development, cross-pollination, and finding good solutions

Sterrett-Art (FA57 is Functional Area 57, the Army’s career field for Simulation Operations officers.  CP36 is the equivalent Army Civilian career field, and also includes Operations Research & Systems Analysis.)

As you can see, the objectives expanded a bit from simply being an addition to the course!  Initially, we were not sure what kind of response we would get, including the possibility that nobody would come.  We conducted the trial run during the spring of 2014 and found that the program hit all the major objectives well enough to continue it as a year-round program… and we’ve kept it going ever since.   We typically run two events per month in the fall, and one per week during electives in the spring, with a more spotty schedule in the winter and summer due to other competing demands.

We’ve made two significant changes since then.  First, we learned from the U.S. Army War College’s Department of Strategic Wargaming to link some of the games to historic events with an anniversary on or around the Brown Bag event date.  Second, we learned to have both Scheduled events, which are widely publicized and for which we have a well-prepared and tested teaching plan, to ensure a smooth event; and also Experiments, which are announced only to the mailing list, and which may involve us trying to learn the game alongside anybody who chooses to come.  The Experiments are a lot rougher, but they give us a chance to try things out in a forum that’s less formal, and to try things out that we’re not sure will actually work well with a more forgiving audience.  The Experiments are also a reason for the gaming underground to come into the light and join our mailing list!

How was the initial proposal received, and what sort of support have you gotten from official channels?  Is there any interest in formalizing the process and institutionalizing the learning that’s happening there?

We initially proposed it by listing out the goals above and suggesting we try it as an experiment; we got the green light to try the experiment, and off we ran.  The program doesn’t involve much overhead – generally a couple of tables in a room – so it doesn’t meet much resistance.  Deputy Secretary of Defence Works’ memorandum in support of Wargaming came along at just the right time to give the program a boost, too.

Regarding formalizing the program….  I eventually had to write a memo to explain the program, but further formality runs aground on continued experimentation.  For example, this spring (2017), students taking A382 (Fundamentals of Wargame Design) will be required to attend some of the Brown Bag sessions, in order to ensure they have some experience with wargames.  That, in turn, drives the games selected for the program and forces us to think harder about the number of people we can support in each one.  Once the elective term ends, we’ll evaluate the outcome in terms of both student learning and sustainability for us running the program and figure out how to adjust course from there.

Fundamentals of Wargame Design, eh?  That sounds like another conversation we need to have soon!  Who are the organizations / agencies involved (if you’re allowed to tell us without killing us afterwards)?  

On Fort Leavenworth, we routinely have participants from CGSC (faculty, staff, and students), the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), the TRADOC Research & Analysis Center (TRAC), Red Team University, and the National Simulation Center (NSC).

In addition, the program has spread a bit.  In 2015, Colonel Jerry Hall, a former student of mine working in simulations at the Army War College, decided to replicate the program there.  Their program brings in designers to help run the games and comment on them. They also have success from tying their events to the War College’s film series and to historical events.  We, in turn, have started tying some of our events to historical anniversaries, and trying to get in some historical commentary for those sessions.

The program has greatly improved our contact with people at a number of organizations – not just the ones on Fort Leavenworth, and the Army War College, but also people with similar projects at the Marine Corps War College, the Naval War College, and National Defense University.


Have you requested any support from the hobby, and what’s the response been?

On the two occasions we have asked for map files so we could print out large-scale version on a plotter, both times the response was immediate and positive: MMP and Victory Point provided us with the maps for OCS Korea and for Cuba: The Splendid Little War respectively.  (Cuba is used in a history elective.)  We certainly appreciated that response!

How have the officers taken to the idea of a wargaming “hobby”?  What’s been their reaction to how the games are put together and the facets of the conflicts where the games choose to focus?

The people who show up to these have been volunteers, so the response is quite positive – including some who began showing up because they were interested in what wargaming might be, and became quite enthusiastic about it!  Certainly people sometimes complain about various aspects of the models in the games – but we believe that’s a good thing, as it drives discussion and thought.  George E. P. Box famously wrote that “all models are wrong, but some models are useful”, and taking that as a starting point moves the discussion from unproductive complaining about “this game is terrible” to frequently very useful discussions of “this game needs X, Y, and Z in order to serve this purpose” or “how could we better reflect these factors in this game without overloading the player”.  Thinking through these issues is highly educational even if the discussion doesn’t lead to a concrete outcome.

That said, we’re about to have some people who are there because they are required to be there.  We’ll see how this works with them.

What’s the ratio of “let’s learn something over lunch” to “let’s have a good time over lunch” and how do you keep that balance? Did you pick particular games because you knew there was a facet of them you wanted to highlight?  Or were you just grabbing games on interesting topics and the lessons were more serendipitous?   

Fun is important, because fun is a motivator to come in the first place, and to stay engaged once there.  However, every game we put in the schedule is there for some other reason as well: it has to be something that somebody on our team likes enough to lead the event, but it also needs to showcase something about simulation design.  Sometimes, we try games out and discover that even though we may really like them, they don’t work out well in the program, and we either have to drop them from consideration for the future, or carefully rethink how they are being presented.

For example, we experimented with Fred Jane’s Naval War Game, which uses a highly eccentric combat resolution system… the game uses a set of paddles, and each paddle has a pin somewhat off-center.  The player then whacks at a diagram of the target ship, one whack per shell fired, and the resulting holes tell you what and where the shells hit.  It’s a really entertaining concept, but in execution it turned out to be a royal pain, because the holes are somehow never uniform, some holes are there but hard to see, same holes wind up on the edges of armor zones, others tear clean across armor zones, you wind up with deep dents that might or might not count….  We agreed we’d much rather roll dice and get answers we didn’t need to adjudicate, let alone get eyestrain trying to read the pinpricks!


What are some of the games you’ve tackled so far, and what are the kinds of lessons you’ve been taking away from them?  Have there been instructors that have stopped by out of curiosity that are now incorporating wargaming into their classes?

We’ve run the span from Hanabi to Advanced Squad Leader (ASL).  Hanabi is a clever cooperative puzzle game with limited information; we then turn around and ask the students to relate the dilemmas they face in it to Paul & Elder’s Elements of Thought, which is used at CGSC to help teach critical thinking.  Several times, we have paired up ASL with Conflict of Heroes (CoH), because they are completely different approaches to the same thing: squad level combat in World War 2.  (We’d hoped to make a Squad Week this spring, with 5 different World War 2 squad games in 5 days, but we couldn’t make the scheduling work out.)  In the ASL/CoH pairing, the point is not just the way each game works, but the ways that the different approaches of each game cause different decisions to come to the fore.  For example, ASL’s rigid turn structure emphasizes synchronization and coordination, while CoH’s extremely fluid structure emphasizes reacting to unfolding events.

One of the participants was a logistics instructor, who decided to include Drive on Paris in his History of Operational Logistics elective, because it highlights the dependence of the armies of the era on railroads.

A noteworthy success in getting a game into the classroom is Drive on Paris.  We ran it with some trepidation as an experiment in a longer-form game during the winter break – we were nervous that it might prove too complex to teach rapidly enough.  Teaching turned out to be a non-issue, as the players were all familiar with wargames.  We did show that you can run the game a bit faster when you break the front into smaller segments – and we got boundary effects, when two of the German players failed to tie into each other’s flanks, permitting the French to drive between them and shatter the German forces in Lorraine.  One of the participants was a logistics instructor, who decided to include Drive on Paris in his History of Operational Logistics elective, because it highlights the dependence of the armies of the era on railroads.

The success with Drive on Paris also gave us the nerve to try OCS Korea this past winter break, which also went quite well, though it is too complex to add into a class.  (So far…?)

What’s been the highlight moment so far?  A great game situation or a really interesting “aha!” moment in the learning, or just a fun outcome to one of the scenarios?

A few highlights:

One of the guys on my team, Michael Dunn, went poking around in the archives and discovered a set of Dunn-Kempf, a miniatures wargame created by two Army officers at Leavenworth in the 1970s (and directly based (with Phil Barker’s permission) on War Games Research Group’s venerable War Games Rules – to the extent that the Army’s Dunn-Kempf boxed set, which has a labelled space for every component of the game, includes a labelled space for “British Rules”!)  We got ready to run it for historical interest, and discovered that one of the creators, Steve Kempf, lived nearby; he was happy to join the session and provided a number of tales of its development and use.


Last fall, on the anniversary of Trafalgar (21 October), we ran 1805: Sea of Glory.  The British side was commanded by a naval officer attending CGSC, who was also a Napoleonics naval history buff.  He provided running commentary on the historical campaign and factors influencing commander’s decisions in it, and he seemed impressed by how well they were reflected in the game.  We all came away with a better understanding of the era and of the problems the historical commanders wrestled with.  Fittingly, the naval officer won the game by breaking the Allied fleet’s line, in a battle off Cadiz, in which the British admiral was killed….

We frequently run Race to the Rhine; it packs a great combination of being easy to learn, quick to play, and a highly innovative means of putting logistics in the spotlight without turning the game into a spreadsheet drill.  Once, the Patton side was being run by a team composed of a CGSC student, a SAMS student, and a SAMS staff officer.  They never stopped discussing their plans – so much so that other teams sometimes got confused about whose turn it was – and the entire discussion was conducted in proper doctrinal terminology.  If you closed your eyes, you’d think you were in a class on operational logistics.  One of the students was writing a thesis on wargaming, but started off not knowing much about it; he had been directed to us for help and we’d suggested he might want to attend the Brown Bag Gaming Program to help him learn.  He became a regular attendee and was soon telling us about playing games with his wife and son.

We’ve repeatedly run the Prussian Kriegsspiel – still a great game for fun and training, and the grandfather of most of the games we play today – which expanded into running an 1870 Kriegsspiel in the area around Metz every year as an after-class activity for some of the history instructors in order to supplement their block of instruction on the rise of the Prussian Army.  One of the tactics instructors noticed that the students who took part in Kriegsspiel seemed to perform significantly better in tactics, so we have been assisting in a study of the point (there’s no conclusion yet).


If a civilian wanted to get involved, or eavesdrop on the program, is there a way to join the fun?

These are open to the public given prior coordination with us, and the mailing list is open to all.

What’s next for the brown-bag program?  And when can we expect to see a full-on AAR in our forums about what happened?

The biggest open question at the moment is handling rather more people than in the past, not all of whom are necessarily personally interested in the event.  Once we figure that out, next year we need to make sure it supports the new wargame-design-as-thesis option for the master’s thesis that CGSC students have the option of writing.  It’s great to get the Brown Bag program integrated into the course, but it’s also a challenge.

As for an AAR…  perhaps after the next long-form game, likely to be in December?

What should we have asked you, if we’d known what to ask you before we started asking you?

The most unexpected effect of the Brown Bag Gaming Program has been its impact on my ability to learn new games.  Before, I’d thought I was having increasing trouble learning new games due to advancing gray hair.

Running events for the Brown Bag Program, and having it as a goad to try out more new systems knowing that I would soon have to teach them to others, has forced me to sit down and practice the business of learning new games and assimilating them enough to teach them to others and run the event smoothly.  The practicing has made me become much better at that process.

I’ve learned two things from this.  First, that reading game rules with a constant eye to “how will I teach this” turns out to help with learning the rules…

… and second, that my troubles learning new games came not from gray hair, but from being lazy!

Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to give us the scoop on the program.  It sounds fantastic.

All images courtesy of CGSC

As a note, Dr Sterrett has stopped by GH twice before, discussing his day job here, and the Command Post Wargaming program at Origins here.

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