war game lessons

Do You Want to Play a Game?

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I recently wrote about what I learned about work from role-playing games. Time to up my geekiness a level and relate what I learned from another of my passions growing up – the board war game.

For those of you who were busy with sports and academics in high school, you know, the real world, these games are usually recreations or famous battles or entire wars (although I once played a game that posited a near-future fight for Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact). They are played on boards so big they usually come in three or four sections, with military units represented by small cardboard squares maneuvering on hexagonal spaces.

These games are essentially more complicated versions of Risk, and some adults used to ask me why I wasted my time with them. Why does anyone develop an interest in one thing or another? The hobby fulfilled my passion for military history, admittedly ironic for someone who is almost a pacifist (I do believe there are handful of unavoidable reasons for war). Although I would say it is my knowledge of war that has created my distaste for it. The more I learned, the more I realized that war changes everything but solves nothing. It certainly doesn’t save lives, but merely determines which lives will be taken.

But I digress. Regardless, playing these games taught me some important lessons.

How to Follow Instructions

Many war games seek historical accuracy, covering every detail in terms of terrain, troop strength and even the weather. Achieving this accuracy means providing instructions for how to play. These are no building an Ikea bookshelf pictures-only instructions. They are often 40 or 50 pages of single space type that make the tax code look like Good Night Moon.

Being able to read, understand and follow these instructions have come in handy every time a contract or some other legal document crosses my desk.

There Can Be Too Many Rules

In their attempt to be historically accurate, some war games have instituted so many rules the games are unplayable, the action bogged down with details that don’t make a difference. One notorious example tracked how much water Italian troops needed in North Africa to boil their pasta. Turns in games like these could last hours, while armies crawled along at a snail’s pace. Players either ignored these games, or, if they did play them, simplified the rules to increase playability.

Nowadays, when I am writing Policies or Procedures, I keep in mind that clarity and simplicity is key if I want them to be both understood and followed.

Have a Plan

All war games had one objective – too defeat the enemy. How that was done could range anywhere from destroying a majority of its troops to conquering a particular city, or even just standing up to an overwhelming force for a set period of time. To succeed, you needed a plan, and for a plan, you needed both a good strategy and good tactics. Strategy is a plan of action for achieving an overall aim. Tactics are the methods with which you are going to implement the strategy. For example, if the objective is to take over a city, the strategy may be to surround it and cut it off from reinforcements before assaulting it directly. A tactic may be to throw all your forces at a particular spot in the enemy line and then exploit the breakthrough with your most mobile troops.

Whenever I or someone else poses a project, I put it into these terms. What is the objective, what approach will we take, and how will we implement it?

Don’t Overlook Logistics

Most war games, as war itself, rely on good logistics. Most specifically, keeping open lines of supply so that troops, fuel and armaments can reach the front lines. Resources and movement mean as much as how troops perform in battle. It doesn’t matter how elite a fighting force is if it’s out of ammunition.

My job is to support those employees on the front lines, and if I don’t give them the ammunition they need to do their jobs, whether its training, pay or a healthy work environment, there is no way I can expect them to succeed.

Intelligence Matters

In war games, you have a luxury you don’t have in a real war, or in life for that matter, of being able to play the game again. You can learn from your mistakes and not make them a second time. More importantly you know what to expect. One of the most difficult aspects of any war game the first time you play it is not knowing where your enemy is or what its capabilities. If you don’t have good means of getting this information, whether its spies, recon, radar or whatever the game allows, you can easily stumble into a no-win situation.

At work, I try to get as much information as I can before making a decision. The more questions I ask, the more data I gather, the more I can avoid walking straight into an ambush.

Playing the Odds

Battles in wargames are determined by comparing the strength of opposing forces, rolling a dice, and then comparing the strength ratio to the die roll on a chart to get the outcome (victory, draw, loss). When attacking, the goal is to have as great a strength over the defender as possible in order to sway the odds towards victory. Even then, however, there are no guarantees. Rolls of 1 through 5 on a 6-sided die could mean victory, for example, but a roll of 6 could still mean defeat, no matter how good the odds.

While I certainly want to work towards making sure I’m successful, I also know that there are no guarantees. It’s important to mitigate risk while still accepting failure as a responsibility.

I know the workplace is not a battlefield. And yes, these games don’t accurately recreate the experience of war, anyway. However, like role-playing games, these games are not a waste of time. They teach practical skills, and there are a whole lot of worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon.

Now, if I can just move out of my parent’s basement.