How a Board Game Helps DoD Win Real Battles
Like the classic board game Risk, the Army's C-WAM employs dice to determine variables, as players maneuver brigades across a board.
Computers continue to revolutionize modern warfare, not the least of when it comes to putting battle plans to the test. Devise the scenario, feed it into the computer and out spews detailed estimates of risk, supply consumption and more.
But as it turns out, that there’s nothing like pitting humans against humans – at least to get the kinks out of a plan to begin with.
Indeed, Pentagon leaders right up to the deputy secretary of defense are using a house-built Army board game – complete with outcome tables and standard dice – to spot the flaws in battle plans before crunching the numbers with modern computing. Just as manned aircraft and drones can team to form a highly effective partnership, computer models linked to board games can bring out the best qualities of both.
The Army calls its board game C-WAM – short for the Center for Army Analysis Wargaming Analysis Model. Games pit (friendly) Blue versus (enemy) Red forces and results are fed into the Joint Integrated Contingency Model (JICM), a powerful computer simulation that analyzes plans and calculates losses and supply consumption.
First developed eight years ago, C-WAM is increasingly popular and has been used by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, a well-known vigorous advocate for analytical wargaming as well as the Joint Staff, multiple Combatant Commands (COCOMs) including Pacific (PACOM) and European (EUROCOM) commands, and other major component commands, such as U.S. Pacific Fleet and Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Air Forces Europe.
The game has also been used to test potential effectiveness of new weapons during the acquisition process.
“Demand is far outstripping our capacity at this point,” says C-WAM creator Daniel Mahoney III, a campaign analyst for Center for Army Analysis at Fort Belvoir, Va. “We turn people down now for wargaming requests.”
Understanding the Game
Physically, C-WAM consists of a tabletop map typically about five-feet long and four-feet wide. Players maneuver their pieces (representing brigades) across the map, just like in any other tabletop game. The digital Battle Tracker– a simple computer database — rolls digital dice and tracks losses, supplies and so on. If they prefer, players may also choose to use conventional physical dice.
The Blue and Red teams are each led by a commander-in-chief and supported by ground, air and naval commanders. A White Cell umpire, supported by a few more people to run the Battle Tracker, oversees the game as it plays out.
If the scenario involves undersea warfare, “we actually run a second map in a hidden [room] area for the submarines,” says Mahoney, a retired lieutenant colonel and former chief of plans for the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.
Securing High Value Assets/WMD
The 76-page C-WAM game manual, a copy of which was provided to GovTechWorks under the Freedom of Information Act, contains 27 dice-driven tables.
To keep the wargame playable but realistic, some aspects are simulated abstractly. For example, three different probabilities are assigned to attacks on an opponent’s cyber networks and orbital space assets, as well as friendly electronic warfare operations.
Depending on another dice roll, three outcomes are possible:
- Degradation of enemy command and control, affecting the probability of success during combat
- Impairment of enemy logistics, resulting in a one- to three-day delay in resupply
- Degradation of enemy ISR capabilities, which can impair players’ ability to use air strikes to interdict enemy reinforcements coming up from the rear
Not surprisingly, given the wargame’s Army origins, ground combat is the most developed game element. But C-WAM also includes both naval and air rules and is popular with naval-centered organizations, such as PACOM.
Dice tables adjudicate everything from weather to special forces strikes. But the aim is less about specific results than to prove whether or not a concept has merit. “We tell everybody: Don’t focus on the various tactical outcomes,” Mahoney says. “We know they are wrong. They are just approximations. But they are good enough to say that at the operational level, ‘This is a good idea. This might work. That is a bad idea. Don’t do that.’”
In other words, like any good military simulation, the goal is cognitive. Competitive tactical play leads to insights at the operational level. “The Red player might ask the Blue player, ‘Why would you do that? Exposing that flank doesn’t make any sense,’” Mahoney says.
Those operational insights can lead to more accurate plans that can be fed into and analyzed by the Joint Integrated Contingency Model (JICM) for that particular area of operations. But that’s not always necessary. “Sometimes [combatant commands] don’t take the next step,” Mahoney says. “They just want to have someone compare the courses of action for them.”
Answering a Need
C-WAM was created about eight years as a solution to a problem: JICM requires a human analyst to create detailed plans for both friendly and enemy forces, which can be fed into the model for adjudication. But sometimes initial plans lacked the detail needed to engage JICM successfully. For example, a combatant command (COCOM) might submit a theater-level plan for evaluation, but leave out specifics, such as whether friendly or enemy forces will attack on the right or left flank, or whether the attacker or defender will emphasize maneuver or rely on artillery. That meant that analysts had to subjectively decide how the battle would be fought.
C-WAM’s Sequence of Play
The Center for Army Analysis Wargaming Analysis Model (C-WAM) pits Red vs. Blue forces in a complex contest of tactics and strategy. The game’s depth is demonstrated in its Sequence of Play. Each turn represents one to three days of real time and must include each of the following:
- Determine Weather
- Cyber Operations
- ISR Operations
- Integrated Air Defense System Allocation
- Strategic Strike Missions
- Determine Air Superiority
- Air Tasking Order
- CAP [Combat Air Patrol] Placement
- Air-Air Combat
- Strategic Deployment
- Strategic Air Movement
- Strategic Sea Movement
- Logistical Sufficiency Check
- Forward Area Logistical Check
- Strategic Logistical replenishment
- Naval Combat
- Resolve Subsurface Engagements
- Surface Movement
- Surface Detection
- Surface Combat
- Tactical Deep Strike Missions
- Tactical TBM [Tactical Ballistic Missile] Strikes
- Cruise Missile (CM) & Fixed Wing Aircraft (FWA) Air Interdiction (AI) Strikes
- Ground Combat
- Counter SOF [Special Operations Forces]
- New SOF insertions
- Intra-Theater Lift / Onward Movement & Integration Operations
- Ground Maneuver
- AI vs. Moving Ground Units
- Ground Attacks
- Post Combat
- Refugee Flows
- Stabilization Requirements
“Somebody would give an analyst a very high-level document, that says, ‘You’ve got three divisions, they’re attacking in this terrain, here’s the enemy. Go forth and do great things,’” Mahoney says. “But the analyst didn’t know what the campaign looked like, how the terrain might impact operations, how the enemy’s capabilities – or our own – might affect things, the flow of friendly forces into theater and so on.”
Analysts weren’t necessarily equipped to make those decisions.
That’s where CWAM comes in. The game allows military organizations to come up with multiple Courses of Action (COAs) or alternative plans, and then test those out on tabletop to help leaders develop a final battle plan incorporating the best of each COA. Only then is the plan submitted to JICM for a detailed analysis.
Mahoney believes C-WAM also helped fill a gap in operational-level wargaming. “There were strategic games going on and very low-level tactical games,” he says. “The hole was at the operational level.”
One Defense Department wargaming expert who asked not to be named, said C-WAM is valuable but has its limitations. “CWAM is useful if the question you’re asking is at the operational level of analysis, and the abstractions inherent are acceptable to the study parameters,” the expert said. But one must remember that C-WAM is a conceptual tool. “Looking at operational ConOps [concepts of operations] can be a worthwhile endeavor with C-WAM – provided you’re comfortable with the assumptions it makes.”
Advantages of Simplicity
Why use old-fashioned paper games in the Digital Age? One reason is cost. Mahoney and others at the Center for Army Analysis developed C-WAM using nothing more sophisticated than a DBA database maintained by an analyst in his spare time. Mahoney acknowledges though, that were funding available he’d love to hire a full-time database administrator.
Another reason is simplicity. Board games can be easier to work with. Need to change the rules or tweak the probability of a cruise missile strike hitting its target? Instead of calling in programmers to rewrite computer code, changes can be made with the stroke of a pen. And then there’s portability. . “I can’t take a computer suite with me,” Mahoney says. “But I can roll up a map and take it with me.”
C-WAM is popular because the U.S. military recognizes that what Mahoney calls the “oracle methodology” – the belief that if only the right data were fed into the right computer model, then the answer would be clear – is not yet possible. Even in an age of Big Data and machine learning Mahoney argues, human-on-human gaming still delivers significant value.
And yet automating such tools also has value, notes Bob Pricone, a retired Army colonel and staff vice president at General Dynamics Information Technology. “The contemporary operating environment is dynamic, complex and fast paced,” Pricone says. “This requires commanders and their staffs to rapidly assess multiple courses of action which can provide sufficient outputs to make decisions.”
In the long term, he adds, “Further development of automated wargaming tools are critical for the Joint Forces ability to plan and make decisions in these dynamic and complex environments.”