Wargaming in the Classroom: An Odyssey

Monday, April 25th, 2016

James Lacey designed the perfect course on the Peloponnesian War for his students at the Marine Corps War College — only to realize that no one learned or remembered much of anything. Then he completely redesigned the course to use wargaming in the classroom, and the results were amazing:

I selected Fran Diaz’s Polis: Fight for the Hegemony, because, unlike many games, it has a heavy economic and diplomatic element. After dividing the seminars into teams, I was able to run five simultaneous games.

The results were amazing.

As every team plotted their strategic “ends,” students soon realized that neither side had the resources — “means” — to do everything they wanted. Strategic decisions quickly became a matter of tradeoffs, as the competitors struggled to find the “ways” to secure sufficient “means” to achieve their objectives (“ends”). For the first time, students were able to examine the strategic options of the Peloponnesian War within the strictures that limited the actual participants in that struggle.

Remarkably, four of the five Athenian teams actually attacked Syracuse on Sicily’s east coast! As they were all aware that such a course had led to an Athenian disaster 2,500 years before, I queried them about their decision. Their replies were the same: Each had noted that the Persians were stirring, which meant there was a growing threat to Athens’ supply of wheat from the Black Sea. As there was an abundance of wheat near Syracuse, each Athenian team decided to secure it as a second food source (and simultaneously deny it to Sparta and its allies) in the event the wheat from the Black Sea was lost to them. Along the way, two of the teams secured Pylos so as to raise helot revolts that would damage the Spartan breadbasket. Two of the teams also ended revolts in Corcyra, which secured that island’s fleet for Athenian purposes, and had the practical effect of blockading Corinth. So, it turns out there were a number of good strategic reasons for Athens to attack Syracuse. Who knew? Certainly not any War College graduate over the past few decades.

All of these courses of action were thoroughly discussed by each team, as were Spartan counter moves. For the first time in my six years at the Marine Corps War College, I was convinced that the students actually understood the range of strategies and options Thucydides wrote about. In the following days, I was stopped dozens of times by students who wanted discuss other options they might have employed, and, even better, to compare their decisions to what actually happened. A number of students told me they were still thinking about various options and decisions weeks later. I assure you that no one even spent even a car ride home thinking about my Thucydides lectures.


For six or more hours at a sitting, classes remain focused on the strategic choices before them, as they try to best an enemy as quick-thinking and adaptive as they are. Every turn presents strategic options and dilemmas that have to be rapidly discussed and decided on. As there are never enough resources, time and again hard choices have to be made. Every war college administrator can wax eloquently about their school’s mission to enhance their students’ critical thinking skills. But they then subject those same students to a year of mind-numbing classroom seminars that rarely, if ever, allow them to practice those skills that each college claims as its raison d’etre. Well, wargaming, in addition to helping students comprehend the subject material, also allows them an unparalleled opportunity to repeatedly practice decisive critical thinking. Moreover, it does so in a way where the effects of both good and bad decisions are almost immediately apparent.

At the end of each wargame, students walked away with a new appreciation of the historical circumstances of the period and the events they had read about and discussed in class. And even though all wargames are an abstract of actual events, I am sure that no student exposed to historical gaming will ever again read about the Peloponnesian War without thinking about Sicily’s wheat, the crucial importance of holding the Isthmus of Corinth, or what could have been done with a bit more Persian silver in the coffers of one side or the other’s treasury.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    Here is a two hour YouTube video introducing this board game…

    With 11,519 views it’s actually the most watched video on that channel!

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    Prior to my and my wife’s moving I packed away my library, and in it is a book, Hitler’s Panzers East by R.A. Stolfi. In the book, if my memory serves me right, Stolfi wrote that the attack by the Germans on the Soviet Union in 1941 had been war gamed extensively to come up with the actual plan. The head of the planning was General Erich Marcks. It was gamed over ten times, perhaps as many as fourteen in succession. The Germans lost circa the first 9 or so times. Then there were a few draws. Then the Germans won with increasing efficiency the next 3 or 4 times, at which time they had a plan. The plan was for four armies to simultaneously attack: one north toward Leningrad, one south through southern Ukraine, and two central toward Moscow. Of course Hitler stopped the Southern attack. Then at the end of July, when the two central armies were set to attack toward Moscow, Hitler instead had the Ukraine attacked, delaying the thrust to Moscow. General Winter eventually stopped the Germans. The Stolfi book is quite compelling in that the plan would have won the war for the Germans by September, 1941.

    Stolfi wrote that Hitler also screwed up the Northern Army’s attack by stopping it after the Bridge at Dvinsk (now Daugavpils) was captured intact. Google Stolfi’s A Bias for Action: The German 7th Panzer Division in France & Russia 1940-1941.

  3. I’ll have to give that a read, Dan. My understanding was that by the time they got near Moscow, the German armies couldn’t be sufficiently supplied by the crappy Russian logistics network to allow further offensive action. That plus stiffening Russian resistance led to stalemate.

  4. Slovenian Guest says:

    It’s your lucky day Scipio, the mentioned book is surprisingly in the public domain, and can be downloaded, free of charge, from the Internet Archive here:

    A bias for action: the German 7th Panzer Division in France & Russia 1940-1941

    Thank you library of the Marine Corps!

  5. I thank you, SG, but I’m not sure my wife does…

  6. Slovenian Guest says:

    And Hitler’s Panzers East can be read online here, that’s a legit Russian history site as far i can tell.

    The conventional wisdom on World War II in Europe sees little prospect of the Germans Winning in 1939-1940 and virtually none after the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. In his book, Hitler’s
    Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted, Russel Stolfi advances the thesis that in June 1941 the
    Germans had the physical capabilities at the right time and place to win the Second World War. Stolfi
    states the German invasion of the Soviet Union, operation name Barbarossa, whether successful or
    unsuccessful had the tactical, operational, and strategic qualities that make it the hinge of fate in
    World War II. He claims the Germans had the fundamental physical strength to defeat the Red Army
    and seize the Moscow-Gorki area, and yet, they neither took Moscow nor won the campaign. At the
    time, the Soviets had no control over their own destiny. They fought hard but ineffectually against
    German armies that advanced relentlessly through their defense. Under such circumstances, Stolfi
    believes Germany must have failed for some reason, some outlandish misjudgment, or aberration
    demanding a fundamental reevaluation of World War II.

    If Germany had defeated the Soviet Union in 1941 and conquered all of Europe, the political and socio-economic dynamic might have been different in Europe. The political and social consequences of this outcome would have been tremendous. Liberal democracy would undoubtedly have been suffocated. Marxian socialism would probably have been made extinct. This book highlights the burden of command and the impact of various solutions in the prosecution of war.

    World War II Reinterpreted offers the student of Readings in Military Leadership a unique perspective on the question of whether the man shapes the times or whether the times shape the man.

    That summary is from this pdf review of the book. It goes even further inside, chapter by chapter reviewed!

  7. Dan Kurt says:

    If I remember correctly, there is an entire chapter in Hitler’s Panzers East on the sufficient Logistics Capability of the Germans. One point I remember was that the Todt Organization had enough prefabricated double line railroad track to reach well beyond Moscow.

    The entire plan was to effect a rapid war of maneuver and to reach as far a Gorky and then to fight a Reverse Front War. Read the book as I don’t think you will be disappointed.

    By the way, Stolfi had a bachelor degree in engineering before he obtained his Stanford Ph.D. in History. He writes like an engineer: clear, sparse text that is organized and readable. Stolfi also read and spoke German (his mother was German) and had access to the archives of the Wehrmacht captured by the Americans and stored in the USA.

Leave a Reply