Interview with COL(R) Eric Walters, USMC

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This month, we have a fantastic interview with retired USMC Colonel Eric Walters.  Well-known in professional wargaming circles as a supporter for great integration of wargames into training, COL(R) Walters graciously gave us a few minutes of his week to answer some questions and tell some war stories.

Interview by Brant Guillory, 9 November 2013


Can you give us a little bit of your military background in the Marines? And don’t be afraid to get technical – our audience is pretty savvy on organizational details!

I first joined as a tank officer and served as both a tank platoon and an amphibious tractor platoon commander, subsequently serving as a company commander in a maintenance battalion.  I switched my Military Occupational Specialty to serve as a Marine Air Group Task Force Intelligence Officer and I did that job the last 25 years of my career.  In that job I was lucky enough to serve in a wide variety of positions at that tactical , joint task force, subunified and unified command, and national levels.  Most recently I served as the Director of Intelligence for the largest humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operation in the world—the aftermath of the 26 Dec 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—and as the senior intelligence officer for 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  One of my bosses at 3d MAW, Charlie Bolden, is presently serving as the Director of NASA, while my wartime commander, Jim “Tamer” Amos, is now Commandant of the Marine Corps.  I guess they somehow succeeded in spite of me!

I did two “wargaming” tours in the military.  One was as the intelligence officer for the II MEF Wargaming Center, basically designing Command Post eXercises (CPX) using computer wargames, manual wargames, and Tactical Exercises Without Troops (TEWTs) where only command posts went to the field to practice combat decisionmaking.  The second was as the intelligence planner for the world’s largest CPX in Korea, ULCHI-FOCUS LENS; my job was writing the exercise scenario, designing the simulation-intelligence system interfaces, and executing intelligence control during the conduct of the exercise.


How did you pick up wargaming as hobby and how did you start to integrate wargaming into your assignments within the Marines?

In 1973 or so I was a young teenage model ship builder and went to a hobby store to purchase yet another 1:700 waterline series plastic kit of a WWII Japanese aircraft carrier when I spied a copy of Avalon Hill’s MIDWAY game.  I bought that instead of the model kit and subsequently became obsessed with wargaming, never building another plastic model ship again.  I used wargaming as a junior officer to teach Marines tactics and was lucky that the institution had its own manual games it employed in training.  In the late 1980s we used a military miniatures game played on molded plastic terrain boards, TACWAR, to teach tactics from company to battalion level.  We had a board game system called STEEL THRUST to exercise regimental and division staffs, played on paper maps.  It took a lot of training and practice to use these wargame-based training devices well.  Far more popular was the computer-assisted CPX supported by the Tactical Warfare Simulation Evaluation and Analysis System (TWSEAS) since it didn’t take a lot of customer unit familiarization training and overhead to use.

COL Walters deep in thought, commanding the Brits at PrezCon 2007

COL Walters deep in thought, commanding the British and Hessians at the Battle of Brandywine at PrezCon 2007

What are some of your favorite hobby wargames, and what keeps you coming back to them?

I’d have to say my favorite one is ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER (AH/MMP) purely because of the wild swings of fortune, the versatility in coverage, and the depth of detail.  It is definitely NOT a realistic treatment of tactical warfare, but I don’t care because the “war movie” illusion is so powerfully addictive for me.  The reason I keep coming back to it is because the game demands repeated play and I’ve invested so many years with it I simply can’t let go.  It’s huge fun.  Won’t proselytize the game, however; I was one of the original playtesters and there wasn’t anything else even remotely like it when I started.  Today, there are many superb squad-level WW II tactical game systems out there to choose from.  I’m not sure I’d start into the system these days, not unless I had a network of wargame buddies who were into it and could teach me.

Right behind this is THE DEVIL’S CAULDRON: THE BATTLES FOR ARNHEM AND NIJMEGEN (MMP), the first game in the Grand Tactical Series.  I’ve been playing this and its sister game, WHERE EAGLES DARE, at MMP’s WINTER OFFENSIVE convention for the past three years.  I love monster games and laying this puppy out on the table with all the counters is graphically stunning and never fails to draw a crowd to watch the operation unfold.   My favorite thing about the game is how it marries the uncertainties of a “chit pull” unit/formation activation system with an effective model of different decision cycle/”OODA Loop” speeds for division-level leaders and staffs.  Plays really fast, too—this title is one of the most exciting and playable monsters out there.

DOWNTOWN: THE AIR WAR OVER HANOI, 1965-1972 (GMT) is another favorite for a number of reasons.  My father served as a department head officer onboard an aircraft carrier, the USS ORISKANY (CVA-34), in 1969 and 1970 on “Yankee Station” in the Tonkin Gulf, so I have personal reasons for liking it.   The game is amazing recreation of individual aerial raids in a highly asymmetric situation and does a marvelous job of showing the progression of tactics and technology over time.  I appreciate the focus being on U.S. air mission planning as one discrete part of the game and execution of strike packages and support on the game map being another; this fits with my military experience better than most other wargames.  It’s also quite a challenge to be the DRV trying to derail the “Yankee Air Pirates” off their plan.  It’s very, very satisfying to win as that side, particularly against the U.S. Navy which is usually better off than the Air Force, particularly in the earlier years of the war.

For multi-player games, it’s still DIPLOMACY (AH).  I like a lot of other strategic multi-player games, but none are as simple to learn/play or as continuously nail-biting as this one.  I learned it in high school where we had a Strategic Games Club and some of us still remember each and every stab we either mounted or received!  I certainly don’t claim to be very good at it, but at least I don’t hold a grudge!  Really easy to get a group of players together to have a go at this, compared to many other multi-player titles that involve a lot of rules.


You’ve deployed to combat with the Marines. What (if any) wargames have you found (digital or tabletop) that you felt could come close to the experience you had on the ground in theater? Which wargames, or wargame standards, should be punted to the curb based on your experiences downrange?

Oh, I can’t say any game comes close to combat experience.  It’s really two very different things.  Wargames are designed for entertainment and hopefully are a little educational.  Some of what I’ve learned in combat might be transferable to a wargame board (and for me that would be how to give mission-type orders to another player in a team game) and some of what I’ve learned in wargaming might be transferable to combat (seeing meaningful patterns of enemy actions on a map being the best example of that).  But at the end of the day, wargaming is my hobby and war is my business—they are very far apart from each other.  Because of that, it’s not hard to keep them separate.


COL Walters is also an avid traveler

In your experience, where did wargaming assist in the training you were doing with the Marines? Where did you find some of the wargaming events to be counter-productive, or a less-than-optimal use of training resources?

The military all too often tends to put people in idealized environments and not ones that reflect real-world problems.  So the best use of wargaming in training lies in making the situation  anything BUT ideal.  When I run double-blind kriegspiel wargames, Marines know their own mission and order of battle, they often have no idea of their enemy’s goals and strength/organization/capabilities.   I like meeting engagements where neither side knows the terrain details all that well (I lay out map panels when units first move onto them), thus rewarding recon screens.  When running defensive situations, I ensure there are options for the player to call for reinforcements at a victory point cost—and they may or may not show up in the freshest condition and/or precisely at the time asked for.  Attackers may try to bypass an onboard defender only to exit a board in hexes corresponding to where an ambush zone would be located immediately offboard.  Recon missions aim only to find and report on terrain and enemies, then get out of dodge.  Raids hope to attract more forces to defend against them so they draw forces away from some adjacent (offboard) operation—executing economy of force actions–or they go after some stationary target/building/facility to destroy it or exploit it for intelligence and then retrograde.  Gotta keep things wide open.

What this does is get Marines used to not knowing what the hell is going on.  That happens as a matter of routine in real combat.  They have to come up with an estimate based on what they see and make decisions.  When those decisions seem to be the wrong ones, they have to improvise and adapt.  When doing these games in a multi-player setting, communicating estimates and intents, collaborating and cooperating in execution are all essential skills to develop.  This is far better than many of the “lock-step” choreographed evolutions that are all too often seen in military wargames and field exercises.  While the current COIN conflicts have cured us of some of that in training, I fear it will creep back and we’ll need more of these kinds of double-blind kriegspiels.  We need ENDER’S GAME type training where the rules keep changing and imagination/improvisation, cooperation/adaptation, and coup d’oeil are essential.

The best institutional sessions I ever participated in with the Marine Corps were umpired double-blind manual games.  I was invited to play as the Blue Force Operational Maneuver Group (OMG) commander as part of a Joint Task Force as part of the Marine Corps “Sea Dragon” concept experiments the Wargaming Division at Quantico was holding.  Bill Lind—an old friend of mine—was the JTF commander.  Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson (author of numerous books on tactical innovation) and retired Colonel Gary Anderson (a defense analyst these days) played the OPFOR.  We were seeing if the “Operational Maneuver From the Sea” (OMFTS) concept could be executed using existing technology and equipment, without the fancy stuff the USMC intended on buying.  It was great fun as the controllers had focused on a tactical battle for the beach and we did a classic AIR ASSAULT ON CRETE-style bid to seize an airfield far inland with a heliborne force and flew in reinforcements.  It was a classic operational move and we outran the control scheme on the very first turn!  Great fun to see both the opposing force and the controllers scrambling to react to that!

Wargaming, like any tool, can be grossly misused.  I’ve personally witnessed wargames used to “validate” particular agendas of organizations, intent on justifying a particular piece of equipment, concept, or capability.   An otherwise productive wargame-supported training session can be deflated by a poorly-run After-Action Review that focuses on all the wrong things.  The best wargame-supported training AARs grapple with what people thought was going on and their rationales for what they did to cope with the situation.  Leaders learn a lot about their team-mates and themselves when getting that kind of feedback.

I get suspicious of wargame-supported training and analysis events that are conducted by people who are not wargamers.  In my experience, such evolutions never come out satisfactorily.  That said, experienced wargamers can screw up such evolutions too if they are too focused on the game and not on the goals of the exercise and the people who are participating.


You’ve told a great story in the past about using InfoChess and asymmetric forces in a training environment. Can you share that one with our audience?

InfoChess is another double-blind umpired game based on chess but incorporating purchase and use of information operation and intelligence capabilities that can affect how chess moves are perceived by the opponent.  I used the game as both an “ice breaker” and to teach information operations fundamentals for the MAGTF Intelligence Officer Course in 1999-2000.  The “ice breaker” game was used with a traditional chess situation for teams of students—both White and Black must put their opposing kings into checkmate to win.  The players would spend scarce info ops points to mount feints/ruses on their opponents’ boards and apply OPSEC to hide their actual moves.  Reconnaissance and surveillance efforts aimed at dispelling the fog of war and sometimes would work, sometimes failed against a double-downed deception or OPSEC measure, or sometimes got uncovered by counterintelligence.

For the information operations fundamentals session, we would introduce a variant for Black called “guerrilla chess.”  Basically, Black had pawns substituting for their bishops and rooks but only had to capture six of White’s pieces to win.  White was not told of this and so thought both sides were playing traditional chess.  One particularly memorable AAR after such a game witnessed a captain on the White team complaining loudly that “Had we known that was Black’s goal, we would have used a different strategy!”  A lieutenant’s in the back of the room mused aloud, “Spoken like General William Westmoreland!”  The whole room burst into laughter….


Wargaming for training vs wargaming as a rehearsal for a mission – which did you prefer and how might you characterize some of the differences between the processes?

A lot of wargame design technique you pick up by simply playing a lot of different titles comes in handy when doing deliberate planning and mission rehearsal.  Most military deliberate planning involves some sort of wargaming to test various courses of action.  The manuals can only tell you so much about how to run a game like this and most military officers can’t.  So I sometimes was asked to set up and conduct staff wargames for senior headquarters staffs and would adapt boardgame conventions towards that end.  While I wish I could say I spread out an updated verion of GULF STRIKE (Victory Games, 1984) as we planned the invasion of Iraq, that’s not how it worked.  For mission rehearsal, wargaming isn’t quite as exciting as the course of action is already chosen and being executed; the force being rehearsed in mostly reacting to what the enemy is throwing at them. If you’ve ever played Omega Games solitaire title RANGER, you know what I mean.

In both deliberate planning and mission rehearsal, there’s usually a lot of arguing over the adjudications which quickly becomes tiresome.  There are some big egos and thin skins out there; nobody likes to lose in what appears to be “a kid’s game.”  Since running these kinds of games occurs with peers and seniors most of the time, you can’t blow the referee’s whistle, throw down the flag, and impose a penalty on the play when people are interrupting the flow of the game due to personal pique.

Because of the time limitations, personality influences, and other constraints on wargames supporting staff planning/mission rehearsal, I much prefer wargaming for training.  My favorite way to run these was as a double-blind kriegspiel using an existing commercial tactical game system.  Since I was the senior guy training my subordinate leaders, my rulings stood.   Any hurt feeling usually got salved when the game was over and we did the After-Action Review (AAR); suddenly the loser saw all those ways he or she could have won and is eager to play again.  If there are personalities who just have to assert that the game isn’t realistically replicating unit capabilities, we’d play sci-fi, naval or air warfare, or ancient warfare situations to get them away from doing that.  As I often told my Marines, it’s not about realism so much as it is making estimates in an ill-defined problem situation, learning as you go, and making effective decisions as best you can.


What are some places where the Marines do a good job of integrating wargaming into their training and education? Where could they possibly expand their wargaming repertoire to some new areas?

My understanding is that Phil Sabin-style games (see his book, SIMULATING WAR) have recently found their way into the School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW) in Quantico to educate the most promising Marine majors.  I can only hope that this not only continues, but graduates take this experience with them and do the same in their units.  We still need to do more wargaming in training and educating our junior Marine leaders.  There’s also a crying need for teaching how to better design and run wargames supporting deliberate planning (Marine Corps Planning Process).

One terrific session during my last year on active duty was participating in a Verdy du Vernois-style kriegspiel run by the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.  I was invited to play by the staff of the Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico; student and faculty volunteers came down on a weekday to play.  I, along with Bruce Gudmundsson, Bill Lind, and Don Vandegriff, came along to act as “Prussian Advisors” for the school participant players.  It was a little rigged as I advised the Marine playing General Lee, Bill advised Stuart, and Bruce advised Jackson; Don was all by his lonesome advising the Union side.  We played the Second Manassass/Bull Run campaign and it was a real eye-opener for the students as they had to cope with delays in sending and receiving orders, a thick fog of war not only regarding the enemy but also their own forces, and more.  The museum curator—himself an experienced wargamer–made all the adjudications so players only had to learn a minimum of rules and were free to apply their imagination.  The session was a resounding success teaching basic considerations in campaigning/operational art.  More of this kind of thing should be done.


How much wargaming did you do in a joint environment, and how was that different from what you did with the Marines on their own?

My joint experience with wargaming was overwhelmingly focused on either analysis of courses of action/organizations/capabilities using computer models or in computer-assisted wargames in support of staff training in Command Post Exercises (CPXs).  So when the Combined Forces Command (CFC) wanted to try out a different idea in defending the Republic of Korea from a North Korean attack, we’d play it out in computers and study the resulting data.  Every year we would participate in the world’s largest CPX, ULCHI-FOCUS LENS, to shake out the staffs on processes and procedures. I did very little analytical wargaming in the Marine Corps; institutional games were often sessions intended to acquaint and socialize senior leaders with emerging concepts.  Basically, generals participated in these games to provide some quality and credibility to the decisionmaking needed to play them, but also to get their “buy-in” to what was being done and arm them with “war stories” they could use to illustrate desired concepts.  As far as using wargames to drive CPXs, the Marine Corps does much the same thing these days using the Marine Tactical Warfare Simulation (MTWS)—the “son of TWSEAS”—that the joint forces do with a confederation of different computer wargames and models.


You’re now teaching with the Army – what are the plans for integrating your wargaming experience into the classroom at your new gig? 

I found out that some instructors at other U.S. Army Command and General Staff Collge satellite campuses already do this!  One up at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, has a block game played on a hex-grid map rectified to a Joint Operational Graphic-style topographic map; he uses this to teach tactics and operations.  I’m hoping to do much the same thing, most likely using a copy I’ll need to make of his game!


What doesn’t currently exist in either the professional or hobby wargaming world that you’d like to see someone tackle? Any particular facet of the battlefield, or a particular theater of combat? What about factors that the military glosses over that the hobbyists dig into?

For the professional wargaming world in the military, there’s so much that is needed it’s hard to know where to start.  So I’ll just prioritize my wish list and provide the top three:

#1:  Integrated wargame/curriculum packages.  This last time the Marine Corps did this was when [the folks at the Marine Corps Institute] wrote a series of lessons built around a modification of the PC game CLOSE COMBAT, entitled CLOSE COMBAT MARINE.  It taught basic infantry tactics using the game in a series of progressively more difficult scenarios.  I’d like to see more of that kind of approach.  With the advent of tablets and smart phones, such devices could host interactive “tutorials” on a variety of things, either as a human versus AI scenario or a fully networked game with multiple players outside of in within a classroom environment.

#2:  Wargaming Facilitator Support for Deliberate Planning.  The last attempt at that was a book, STAFF WARGAMING, by Neil Garra that he sold on his website, The S2 Company.  Long out of print, this cherished resource married Neil’s wargame hobby to the needs of an Army brigade or battalion staff planner doing course of action wargaming.  I’m not sure anybody but a wargamer could really make it work, but the idea was a very good one.  Sure would be nice to have a kit and training package to teach staff planners how to effective run a staff planning wargame.

#3:  Make educational gaming fun.  Too many military-run wargames for education can be a real chore and bore.  Simple games, like the Phil Sabin games or InfoChess, run by a gamer who is also an instructor, might just create a few converts among the military students.  Make sure they have to cope with fog/friction; these are well-treated in commercial hobby games and computer games, but not so much in the military ones depicting idealized situations.

For the hobby games, I would love to see more double-blind umpired kriegspiel-style systems being published, such as Pratzen’s LA VOL DE L’AIGLE series on Napoleonic operations.  Had I something similar I could use right out of the box for 20th Century warfare (or even 21st Century situations)—especially for a networked computer CPX—I could have done some really serious training and education for military folks!


Finally, what should we have asked you, if we knew what to ask you?

Okay, here’s what you should have asked me:

If you were a game designer, what would be some of the games you’d design?

I’d create a series of tactical wargames, inspired by SPI’s old GRUNT/SEARCH AND DESTROY titles, reflecting the challenges of small unit warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The series would include campaign games showing the dilemmas in trying to achieve both tactical and operational/strategic success in COIN.  I’d also like to portray the insidious impact of Relief In Place/Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA) in such a campaign!  There also should be room for a wide variety of victory conditions for both sides, corresponding to the timeframe of the scenario/campaign.

Another one I’d like to design is a solitaire game on the Battle of Belleau Wood where the player represents the Marines and the system acts as the Germans.  “C’mon, you sons of b**ches, do you want to live forever?” – Dan Daly, USMC


You’ve said you love playing monster games.  What is your ultimate monster-game fantasy?

I’m torn between it being WAR IN THE PACIFIC 2nd ED (DG) or KABINETTSKRIEG (Red Sash Games) at the battalion level.  A man has to set himself difficult goals in life, even at my somewhat advanced age!

GrogHeads would like to thank COL(R) Walters for some great discussion, and the first beer at Origins is on us!


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