Friday, 18 March 2022

Ukraine 2022- Why Are Our Wargames Wrong?


Some weeks before the war, I designed a wargame about the forthcoming war. It was a manual multi-player solo wargame with all the players on the Russian side. The game was simplistic and focussed on strategic and operational level decisions; there was no element of tactical. To be clear the game was for research purposes, to encompass a complex situation in a single model combining ORBATs, time, space, terrain and cyber; i.e. a wargame.

I have studied the development of wargaming for some decades and so when I presented a session at Connections UK in 2018, Evaluating Wargaming v the Ukraine Experience 2014-15, I was not totally surprised at the negative reaction of some professionals to my work. Having talked to senior figures in the Ukraine military who were in the war 2014/15, I identified various issues with our wargames that were designed prior to the war. Basically, our wargames got it wrong. I then went on to publish a referred journal article with my evidence and submitted it for peer review in Simulation & Gaming Journal in 2020. The article demonstrated major variations in Cold War tactical games (i.e. errors), but the article then summarised the clear academic evidence demonstrating the utility of wargames.

It has quickly become apparent that the professional wargames designed about the impending conflict had got it wrong. Ukraine did not fall quickly under the onslaught of the Russian war machine. In contrast my game was reflected the pace of the actual war and the issues of taking cities. Of course, this could have been by chance (roll a 6 and your game design is right, roll 1 to 5 and it is wrong). The professional games were better designed, included current intelligence, integrated tactical into the operational model and were superior in every way; except they were wrong.

I pondered this and have discussed it with various people and have gravitated towards a potential insight. My design was based on history:

·         the rates of advance were straight out of Dupuy’s Quantified Judgement Model (his tables for this were quoted verbatim by the UK Staff College),

·         history demonstrates that urban combat is slow (so units in urban area saved against a hit on 4, 5 or 6),

·         Russian units were untried and combat ability was determined when entering combat, etc. It is very easy in operational analysis to basis a wargame design on the latest speculative intelligence.

·         Russian logistics are ridiculous.

Rowland, in The Stress of Battle, showed that weapon performance in the ranges (and by implication, the sales brochures) were an order of magnitude better than realistic field exercises (using lasers) and the latter were again an order of magnitude better than actual combat. For example, as a I sniper I get 95% hits at 300 metres on the range, in simulated combat I get 9% hits and in actual battle I get 1% hits.

My insight that is wargames about future conflict need to be informed by the current, but embedded in the realities of military history. Ignore the generals who say this war will be completely different from the last one. Do not believe the weapon sales brochures.


Curry J. (2020) 'Professional wargaming: a flawed but useful tool’, Simulation & Gaming, 51 (5), pp. 612-631.



  1. I can't remember if I've ever commented here before, but I'm commenting to say that having worked on a near future wargame of my own, I've come to the same sort of conclusion; even if my conclusion was driven from the opposite side of increased technological development.

    My supposition was that technology only increases the fog of war, so being able to field super-duper weapons etc is countered by the noise to signal ratio, with an assumption that micro-management leads to further confusion; reference Mogadishu communication delays.

    1. interesting perspective. Social media gives us a deluge of local information, but it is so very hard to process and turn into to an accurate picture of the chaos of war.

    2. I found this YouTube channel called Everyday Spy that has several interesting podcasts from a former CIA field operative. This link may be of interest.

  2. I don't think it wrong. A wargame outcome is kind of like the roll of a dice. If you get a 6 in your dice toss, but on your "next" (real life), you get a 1, neither is wrong. There is inherent variation in every human process.

    Furthermore, if you played your wargame many times, you would see many outcomes (like tosses of a dice).

    I've opined about how to make sense of wargame outcomes "under uncertainty" here:

    1. the link is to a very good article on uncertainty in wargaming and is well worth reading

  3. I haven't read the sales brochures for either Javelin or NLAW but I'd be surprised if they claim a significantly higher level of performance than that achieved by the Ukrainian Armed Forces! :-)

    1. the NLAW sales brochure is here It claims a high kill probability and a range of 800 metres.