Origins 2014 – AARsday: Staff Wargaming

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Wargaming at Origins, by Jim Zabek

Origins is different from many other gaming conventions, (I’m thinking of you, GenCon) in one particular way: wargames. Origins offers lectures on current military events and offers gaming sessions with wargames. One of the coolest was hosted by Grogheads this year (and I say that with all modesty), where Dr. James Sterrett ran a game that was based on the simulations (ed note: they’re games, he’s just not allowed to call them that!) he runs for the Command and General Staff College for the Army.

The game typically has six players and takes at least two, and possibly three or four referees to help facilitate it. Players are given assignments in the military, and if we were searching for a geekier gaming equivalent, I suppose you could say this is a kind of live-action role-playing sans elf ears and boffer weapons.

Typical roles are the Commanding Officer, Operations Officer, Intelligence Officer, and Fire Support Officer. Other roles can be added or removed based upon the number of participants, their experience, and the objective of the game. In our case we had an additional Task Force commander and a commander for air support.

Our game used On Target’s Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm as our game engine. The time was the late-1980s and we were US NATO forces tasked with punching a hole through a force of Soviets.

To begin with our team was given orders, a map, and some guidance on how the military structures its plans. Each player was given a specific task to help contribute to that objective. The plan of attack was broken into phases. Decision points on how to act on contingency plans or to continue forward with the existing plan were developed, along with event triggers to recognize when to act upon those plans.

The map we were on. US forces started to the west, Soviets to the east

The map we were on. US forces started to the west, Soviets to the east

I took the role of the S2, or intelligence officer, and quickly confirmed the stereotypical role of “military intelligence” being an oxymoron. As the rest of the team was working up plans to punch through a Soviet force and disrupt a large Warsaw Pact logistics center, I was busy attempting to guess what the Soviets would try to do. With limited time constraints I only was able to create two plans: offensive and defensive, and to determine a few event triggers which, if we saw the Soviets execute, I would be able to declare which course of action they were taking. One of the key learnings I was able to take away from the game was that if I made a fundamental error in the basic nature of my guesstimate, all future errors in analysis I made of the situation would be magnified accordingly. In other words, if I was wrong from the start, my errors would only get worse.

But errors were not much on my mind at the start of the game. I was given some simple advice: make a decision. Right, wrong, or indifferent, my command wanted to know what I thought and I was advised to make my assessments decisively. For some reason, being sure you’re right – especially when you’re really wrong – is comforting to commanders.

Anyway, our plan was readied and we were taking the northern road moving from west to east. Three major bridges over large rivers were identified as critical to our success, one each about in the north, center, and south of the eastern end of the map. We needed at least one, preferably two of those bridges intact to move our forces off the map and successfully launch our raid on the WP logistics base.

As the ground forces moved out, I coordinated with the air and artillery (Fire Support) guys. I have played Flashpoint Campaigns a number of times and know from hard experience that getting helos into the air and finding the enemy is important, but if the artillery doesn’t act quickly, the enemy SAMs will blow our helos out of the sky and we’ll be blind for the rest of the game. Having briefed them on the risks and determined a course of action we waited for the action to unfold.

Soon enough some SAMs were spotted in the northeast corner of the map, and the Fires guy pounded it thoroughly. We weren’t sure it was out of action, but it didn’t give us too much trouble after that. Shortly thereafter a HQ unit popped up in the southeast. We pounded it, too. Likely just a company HQ, at least there would be a less successful coordination out of one unit. Good enough for now.

Our further progress to the east

Our further progress to the east

As our initial forces rolled up on the northern bridge they were met with stiff resistance by the Soviets. A tough exchange of fire started which would last for the rest of the game (about four hours). There was a great deal of drama in our game, and all of it was quite fun, but the summary is that our advance was stymied and we proved unable to break through the north.

The Soviets probed in the south, but were never very interested in exploiting the potential weakness we had at the southern pass. However, more and more units began to appear on the map, and about half-way through the game it began to dawn on us that there were more Soviet units on the map that we had counted on. That realization would continue to grow through the rest of the game.

As more and more Soviet companies poured on to the map some artillery appeared on the map (courtesy of or feisty Kiowa scouts!) which suggested the better part of a division’s support artillery was on call to the Soviets. The multitude of rifle companies rolling onto the map were ponderously heading north – without much enthusiasm – but north they were going and there were a lot of them.

The Soviets pour onto the battlefield

The Soviets pour onto the battlefield

Eventually our command recognized that our offensive mission was not only stalled, but clearly had shifted to a withdrawal to a defensive posture. Our commander called his superior officer, briefed him on the situation, and proposed a course of action where we withdrew behind the northern pass and then called in FASCAM to mine it in order to smash what was clearly a slowly evolving counter-attack.

Slowly a counter-attack develops, but it is not well-coordinated

Slowly a counter-attack develops, but it is not well-coordinated

As the S2, I was puzzled. As this was unfolding I could see a frightening number of Soviet units pouring on the battlefield, but they weren’t moving with much alacrity. They had plenty of forces for a counter-attack, but were acting as if they were on the defensive. Except they weren’t deploying into a defensive posture. They were simply deploying and halting. It made no sense.

Finally, after nearly five hours of furious planning, execution, reporting, replanning, re-execution in what seemed to be an endless cycle, the game was called.

Perhaps the most important thing which took place was that, as a team, everyone gelled. We took to our roles, quickly learned to not overstep our boundaries, and frictionlessly worked together toward an evolving set of goals in a stressful environment. Win, lose, or draw I would wargame with that team any day. They were great.

Personally, I was less satisfied with my performance. At almost every turn I failed to make a timely identification of Soviet intent, force structure, and course of action. However, it was still incredibly fun. In the end, it’s just a game and what mattered wasn’t winning or losing or being right. What mattered was we had fun.

Our performance according to the game.

Our performance according to the game.

After the game was called we starting reviewing some key points, and one emerged which seemed to explain everything. Remember that HQ we spotted in the southeast? It turned out that it was the supreme HQ for the entire Soviet force. No wonder they were moving so sluggishly – their commander was wiped out. C’est la guerre. It probably helped us avoid annihilation.

As we were finishing our summary after the game, Dr. Sterrett made an observation. He knows most of us have played wargames for years. But, he said, this game that we had played was probably the most “realistic” of them all. It is exactly how the US and other militaries around the world structure their staff training. It gave us some insight into the complexity of formulating not only plans, but good plans, contingency plans, and the triggers which indicate when to switch from one plan to another. Simple in theory, the actual execution of these plans was challenging. And fun. At least at Origins, this is a “can’t-miss” for any wargamer. It’s the chance to get involved in some real world wargaming and maybe the best reason to make plans to attend Origins next year.


US and Soviet forces at the end of the game when the fog of war was lifted.

US and Soviet forces at the end of the game when the fog of war was lifted.

Talk about Origins here >>

6 Responses to Origins 2014 – AARsday: Staff Wargaming

  1. James Sterrett says:

    Great writeup!

    Note, though, that putting this show on took a team – I couldn’t have done it without help from Jim Snyder, Rob Crandall, and Mark Graves.

  2. Doug Miller says:

    Great article Jim! I couldn’t agree more, this is really one of the highlights of Origins for any wargamer. I’m looking forward to having another go myself next year.

  3. Jim Robinette says:

    Great write up, Jim. Kudos to die Spielmeistern. Wish we’d have FP ten years ago when I was at CGSC. Would love to make it to Origins next year.

  4. Robert Crandall says:

    I was there and it was a hoot. I love Jim’s comment that “For some reason, being sure you’re right – especially when you’re really wrong – is comforting to commanders.” as I was playing his CO and I did appreciate his sure tone and the way he radiated confidence as we launched our forces into potential oblivion. If it was left to me I would still be analyzing the setup – ‘analysis paralysis’ I think they call it.

    It is a lot easier playing a game solo but doing it as a group with a real structure is incredibly illuminating and I will never take a smoothly functioning staff for granted again! When I read military history now it definitely makes me more understanding of the chaos that must have been.

    Hats off to James Sterrett for organizing this. It’s the best.

  5. […] technique that has worked well at the battalion level and below (and that we teach at the Staff Wargaming events at Origins) is to develop at least two different enemy courses of action. Usually, these courses of action […]

  6. […] Grogheads team. During that week I participated in and observed several sessions of the wonderful Staff Wargaming sessions run by Dr. James Sterrett and Mark Graves (USA Retired). I’m going to apply the […]

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