Toward a History-Based Doctrine for Wargaming

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Despite its unwieldy title, Matthew Caffrey’s Toward a History-Based Doctrine for Wargaming is a fascinating piece with a lot to say about leadership and organizational change:

Today we think of Napoléon as a great military genius, but other factors also played a part in his military success. One factor was that the French Revolution produced a meritocracy. Previously, only children of officers could become officers. Now, half of Napoléon’s marshals had once been common soldiers. Also, a democracy could field a far larger army than a similar-sized monarchy. Genius, meritocracy, and numbers — Prussia would invent modern wargaming while endeavoring, successfully, to overcome all these French advantages.


While Prussia had used nationalism to overcome France’s advantage in recruiting, it found that adopting a meritocracy was more difficult. Prussia’s solution was to pair commanders selected for their nobility with chiefs of staff selected by merit. Because the only chance even members of the petty nobility had of attaining high rank was selection for the staff corps, virtually all officers wanted to be selected. However, only graduates of the War College were eligible. Moltke now required that each application package include a letter from the applicant’s commander, evaluating his performance as the senior umpire for a wargame. It worked.

When the successful applicants became War College students, Moltke saw to it that they did a great deal more wargaming. Wargaming appears to have always been part of the curriculum at the War College, but Moltke added several innovations collectively called the “staff ride.”

Periodically, Moltke would take the entire student body of the War College to one of the actual invasion corridors into Prussia. Moltke would then describe the most likely first clash between invading and Prussian forces. He would then turn to the most junior student present and ask for his plan of battle. Next he would ask the second most junior, then the third, and so on. Why? If the most senior spoke first, would any disagree?

After arriving at a consensus battle plan, they then played a map-based wargame. Moltke would then name the senior ranking general (aside from himself) to command the invading forces and the second-ranking general to command the Prussian forces. He continued thusly until they were split into two equal teams. Why? Moltke believed that if their plan could succeed against some of their smartest strategists, it would probably also succeed against any enemy strategist. Also, with two equal-sized teams, more officers could participate meaningfully. The next day, he would contact the local garrison (remember the staff ride was being conducted in an actual invasion corridor, so there would always be a garrison). He would direct the garrison commander to march a few hundred soldiers where the plan called for thousands to march. This was done to test the marching times and other details of the plan. When all this was done, the plan went on the shelf as the actual plan for an invasion along that corridor.

Now let us think about all this for a minute. Moltke started with an “off site” (to an environment conducive to candor and free thinking), had a team brainstorm to reach a consensus, tested the resulting plan against a world-class adversary, and finally tested the results with a field exercise. Essentially, he used many smart people and effective procedures to create a plan worthy of a genius, eliminating Napoléon’s final advantage of genius. With all our technology, are we really this conceptually sophisticated today?

Moltke’s politically astute processes did not last:

A series of books published between 1873 and 1876 argued persuasively for a radically different type of wargame. The concept was simple. Wargames have always been unpopular due to the cumbersome, time-consuming rules of adjudication. Therefore, combat-experienced officers were allowed to substitute their military judgment for many of these rules. This would result in games that were faster and thus more popular, hence played more often.

At first, Free Kriegsspiel seemed to work well. At its best, the professional judgment of experienced combat veterans could produce more accurate outcomes in less time. There were two problems, however. First, Germany’s veterans of 1871 gradually aged, retired, and died. Their replacements could not adjudicate with the same authority. The second problem is today called “command influence.” When one of the players outranked the umpire, that player tended to value his professional judgment over that of the umpire.

Nowhere was this problem more visible or more damaging than in the case of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Thinking himself a great military genius, Kaiser Wilhelm never missed a staff ride. The rides still started on a hill overlooking a possible invasion corridor. Just when Moltke would have asked the most junior officer for his opinion, the kaiser would immediately announce the “perfect” battle plan. You can imagine the level of debate. Then, during the actual wargame, instead of having the teams split evenly, everyone wanted to be on the kaiser’s team. The results were predictable; the kaiser’s side always won. It was Germany’s loss.


Arguably the most decisive wargames of all time were played in 1905. That was the only year Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s plan for a wide-turning movement through neutral Belgium and Holland was wargamed before his retirement. Virtually all present were on the kaiser’s (German) team, while two first lieutenants played on the side of the armies of France, Britain, Belgium, and Holland. The wargame concluded with the destruction of the French army so quickly that the British did not have time to come to the aid of France. The kaiser was pleased.

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