Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 1  /  

Towards Better Civilian Strategic Education: A Case for Tabletop Wargames

Towards Better Civilian Strategic Education: A Case for Tabletop Wargames Towards Better Civilian Strategic Education: A Case for Tabletop Wargames
US Marine Corps War College (April 2019), Public Domain
To cite this article: Mainardi, Benjamin E., “Towards Better Civilian Strategic Education: A Case for Tabletop Wargames,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 1, summer 2022, pages 36-41.

Recently, it has become commonplace to hear arguments that the United States military ought to place a greater emphasis on incorporating wargaming into its professional military education programs, so as to better prepare future military leaders for the challenges of the twenty first century.[i] Of course, critics have acutely identified issues with the preexisting practice of wargames and their value as planning tools; notably, that participants often fail to connect the military action with political considerations or objectives and that wargames are seldom able to simulate the realities of combat situations. The fact remains; however, that wargaming already has a long history of use by the armed services and continues to be a significant aspect of crafting operation plans and strategic futures. What is most interesting about the wargaming discourse, however, is the comparatively minor presence of arguments for incorporating wargaming into the education of civilian foreign policy and national security practitioners. This is especially confounding when one considers that it is civilians who occupy the chief roles in defining the political ends, directing the strategic ways, and approving the military means of national security policies.

The education of upcoming foreign policy practitioners and national security strategists is a subject of great interest, importance, and debate. Overwhelmingly, it occurs in the political science and international relations faculties of civilian universities. For students, what an undergraduate foreign or national security policy education looks like is largely an amalgamation of abstract theories, primarily those of the international relations field; historical case studies, mostly cherrypicked from the last two centuries of European history; the strategic canon of Clausewitz and Machiavelli, among others; perhaps a foreign language; and, for some, statistical trend analysis. This is a rather problematic way of educating some of the most important practitioners within their fields, producing graduates of disparate quality in strategic thinking capacity; an issue which has been brought up repeatedly throughout the years across a variety of disciplines in what might be considered a wider debate over the atrophy of degree programs in practicality and critical thinking development.[ii] The question of what an undergraduate education, in this case international relations and affiliated programs, truly equips students to do is one of growing significance yet remains somewhat elusive. While the application of strategic concepts and international relations theory in an academic setting likely helps to develop one’s general analytical skills, its ability to truly instill an understanding of the practice of statecraft, much less the utility of military operations and the practice of war more broadly, is rather questionable.

Enter the tabletop. That tabletop games can be effectively used to enhance learning in a variety of disciplines is a well-understood and empirically founded concept.[iii] Perhaps more intriguingly, however, is the fact that board games have long played a role in crafting the strategic mindsets of statesmen, from the Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (created ca. 2600-2400 BC) to classical China’s Go (possibly created ca. 2300 BC, but first referenced ca. 550 BC).[iv] And yet, despite the contemporary world’s near-unparalleled access to such board games, their usage in the education of the ever-increasing bureaucracy of statesmen and ostensibly “strategic” thinkers is underwhelming.

For their part, many national security practitioners are likely aware of the long history and current usage of wargaming in simulating conflict and geopolitical risk, from Prussia’s nineteenth century Kriegspiel to that of the United States Naval War College. What is both fascinating and baffling, however, is the scant presence of game-based simulation in national security or foreign policy education at the university level despite its prevalence in the professional world as both formal tools of analysis and informal enhancers of relevant skills. While some civilian graduate programs offer wargaming extracurriculars and classes, such as those at Georgetown University and King’s College London, it is seldom a core component of the aspiring statesmen’s education. There are many reasons for this conspicuous absence, varying from the increasing over-emphasis on quantitative methods over the qualitative development of the mind in the social sciences, the resistance of some administrators and academics to a historically stigmatized hobby as well as the more concrete concerns for implementers of access and time requirements.

Operationalizing the Term “Wargame”

It is worthwhile to distinguish what is and is not a wargame. This is, of course, a contentious subject and increasingly so, as simulations passed off as wargaming and its associated concepts, such as red teaming, have proliferated to fields outside of the defense sector. This article’s usage of the term wargame aligns with that of Dr. Peter Perla’s, doyen of the American professional wargaming community. As Perla has long argued, broad definitions of what wargames are undermines the efficacy of their application and understanding of how they ought to be used.[v] At their core, wargames are simply that, games that simulate an aspect of war.

Wargames themselves are not yet another analytical method to produce quantitative results that can be extrapolated into trends. Wargames are not real, and as such, they should not attempt to rigorously reproduce the realities of combat, logistics, and other factors integral to the actual experience of war. In this way, professional “wargaming” by modeling and simulation methods is more akin to veneered operations research and systems engineering than wargaming. Rather, true qualitative wargaming provides a contextualized, albeit abstracted, and often competitive environment that forces human players to make decisions. The value of such a wargame, especially for civilians, is in its role as a human-centric social activity that requires critical thinking and specialized skills in which players show their knowledge by doing, making the kinds of choices that they seldom would have the opportunity to do elsewhere. Thus, in the context of civilian education, likely the most valuable wargames are those that emphasize the strategic level of war and international relations with secondary interest in operations and tactics.

Diplomacy, the Quintessential IR Game

Some institutions have already begun experimenting with tabletop games as supplements to their international relations and security education curricula.[vi] This is perhaps most notable in the case of the widely acclaimed game, Diplomacy – an alleged favorite of Henry Kissinger.

For the unfamiliar, Diplomacy is a tabletop game created by Allan B. Calhamer, a Harvard alumnus whose inspiration was drawn from study of the Congress of Vienna system, the First World War, and the card game Hearts.[vii] The game is set in the years preceding the First World War with players taking the role of one of seven great powers (i.e., Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Turkey).[viii] Unlike the Great War, however, there are no preexisting alliances. The object of the game is to achieve dominance by controlling 18 of 34 “supply centers,” after which a player is presumed to have gained control of Europe.[ix] This is achieved by maneuvering one’s armies and navies around the board to outflank and eliminate your rivals by conquering their territory. However, the driver of the game, as its namesake suggests, is negotiating and aligning oneself with other players in achieving your objectives. A coalition of one or more players may collectively negotiate to end the game in place of an individual victory.

The beauty of Diplomacy is in its abstractness. Its rules are simple and limited. Additionally, there are no chance elements, aside from starting faction, and no rules variation between players. As such, the primary driver of play is social interaction and, in turn, negotiation. By approximating the anarchic world made famous by Kenneth Waltz, it encourages the kind of self-help security-oriented foreign policy and deception the realist school asserts are characteristic of historical international orders.[x] The benefits of Diplomacy’s limited variation and simple mechanics are that it emphasizes considerations of player psychology, decision making, and objective-driven negotiation. These phenomena are certainly studied in any international relations curriculum worth its salt, but students seldom have the opportunity to engage in their active practice. Doing so helps hone one’s “mental muscles” in the context of strategic logic. Its efficacy as a learning tool, albeit with some modifications for teaching purposes, has been noted in several recent articles and studies.[xi]

Furthermore, on a less theoretical note, Diplomacy is an easily accessible game. It can be played online for free or purchased in tabletop format for generally around $29.99 at retail stores. In a single session, players can finish a game in around four hours, depending how disciplined they are in their correspondence with one another. Likewise, Diplomacy’s simple ruleset of only 24 pages presents a low barrier of entry for new players, making it an ideal introduction to strategy board games.

While Diplomacy simulates many of international relations theory’s most well-known concepts (e.g., deterrence, security dilemmas, zero-sum negotiation, an anarchic international system), it has significant shortcomings as well. It operates more on the level of operations than strategy and, as such, does not teach its players to utilize a variety of resources in pursuit of state-specific objectives (i.e., ends, ways, and means) – the essence of strategy. Nor does Diplomacy exemplify one of the most fundamental aspects of warfare, the unknowns and characteristic variability of warfighting. Perhaps most importantly, however, it suffers from a common ailment of similar abstract strategy games, the prominence of dominant strategies. What this means for an observer attempting to derive meaning from the play of Diplomacy, is that as a player becomes more experienced and familiar with the game, the novelty of negotiation and maneuver diminishes. Of course, one could argue that players’ realization of dominant strategies is demonstrative of their learning and the cultivation of the strategic thinking skills.

A Higher Strategic Standard?

A tabletop game which serves to simulate an international system more comprehensively, demonstrates variability in strategic cultures and military capabilities, and encourages players to pursue widely varying objectives would be of much use in supplementing international relations and security studies education. One such tabletop game that fulfills many of these lofty goals is Twilight Imperium (4th Ed.). In contrast to an operational or tactical level wargame or an abstract strategy game like Diplomacy, Twilight Imperium is a rather holistic simulation of statecraft. It operates on the plane of grand strategy in which players seek to utilize a number of differing state resources and capabilities in pursuit of a variety of objectives, most being available to all players, but player-specific objectives are likewise integral to success in the game. This is distinctly a simulation of ends, ways, and means in the context varying strategic priorities.

Whereas Diplomacy abstractly attempts to present a uniformly balanced world, Twilight Imperium deliberately presents a widely asymmetric environment in which players take on the role of factions that vary significantly from one another in playstyle. Thus, it intrinsically simulates the essence of differing strategic cultures and encourages playstyles which abstract concepts of asymmetric warfare and soft power generally not found within the same kind of game. Most importantly, however, the course of play in Twilight Imperium is a simulation of the five fundamental elements of strategic logic and decision making – analysis of a strategic situation, defining ends, developing means, designing and executing ways, and assessing the costs and risks of the chosen strategy.[xii] Players win in Twilight Imperium by completing a series of objectives (ends) that have well-outlined requirements (means) and are achieved through varying actions (ways). The competitive environment created by the presence of other human players enhances risk analysis by introducing non-controlled potential costs dependent on how players act and react. In these ways, Twilight Imperium achieves what Diplomacy does not, a game forcing players to use strategic logic applying ends, ways, and means in a setting that, due to its dynamic environment and asymmetries, prevents dominant strategies.

Twilight Imperium’s greatest drawbacks lay in a rather substantial barrier of entry. The tabletop format of the fourth edition costs $149.95, and another $99.95 for its expansion. While this is not much more than many undergraduate courses force their students to spend on textbooks, by no means is it an insignificant cost. Luckily, this can be mitigated through the use of Tabletop Simulator available online for only $19.99. In terms of actual play, Twilight Imperium inevitably has a much greater body of rules literature. The standard ruleset runs only 24 pages, the same as Diplomacy, however, an additional expansion rulebook and several rules references bring the count to over 122 pages.[xiii] Again, not a major requirement for social science students who should be reading much more in their courses already, but a not insignificant one considering most students are likely unfamiliar with many board game concepts. Most significantly though, its utility as a classroom tool is diminished by its long playtime; an average playthrough of Twilight Imperium may take anywhere from eight to twelve hours.

Barriers to Play and a Success Story

Arguably the greatest hurdle to incorporating wargaming into an academic program is the question of time. Indeed, the opportunity cost in time spent conducting a wargame is among the professional community’s greatest concerns as well. When professors are often already hard-pressed to instill the existing literature relevant to their course topics, the addition of a tabletop game, especially one which may necessitate up to twelve hours to complete, is a tall order. This issue is only exacerbated by the general unfamiliarity of most academics in the execution of wargames, whether hobby or professional.

With these barriers to practical implementation in mind, one must wonder how likely widespread implementation could truly become. Observing the key enablers of success from institutions notably utilizing wargaming may help shed light on solving these dilemmas. Georgetown University’s wargaming initiative has proliferated since its founding in 2018. Its success relies on a combination of key elements: incremental development, university administrator support, partnerships with commercial industry and professional sponsors, and adapting to incorporate online as well as tabletop platforms.[xiv] Ultimately, the initiative has produced a robust network of credit bearing courses, wargaming labs, a wargame library, and student societies that further the mission of the university’s Security Studies Program. Certainly, its wargaming initiative is worthy of review by those interested in bringing the medium to their institution.


Of course, the shortcomings of wargaming have been extensively explored.[xv] Rightfully so, critics of wargaming as a professional tool often target the disconnect in wargames’ ability to simulate reality, relying on mechanics that abstract real-world factors too far to be useful in making policy decisions (e.g., dice rolling as a simulation of Clausewitzian friction). In contrast, as an educational tool, one of the greatest shortcomings of wargames is likely the potential for students to develop a misunderstanding of why choices that were made in history occurred instead of the potentially more optimal decisions that were made in the play of their game, aside from the concerns of practicality in time and resources. This issue can partly be circumvented by using games that take place in a realistic future or do not utilize historical settings, such as Twilight Imperium, but doing so carries its own concerns. Perhaps none more notably than an even greater need for briefing, debriefing, and post-game analysis to identify the shortcomings of player’s considerations in their decision-making as well as to reinforce learning of desired concepts as demonstrated in the play of the game. In all fairness, similar concerns are expressed regarding the practice of professional wargaming as well.[xvi]

Wargames are an experiential supplement to, not a replacement for an educational curriculum. Intellectual examinations in the trends and nature of the international security environment and the application of military force are certainly valuable in building a base of knowledge from which decision makers may draw upon. It remains, however, that students of international relations and security studies remain almost entirely divorced from the practice of their subject matter if they do not have prior foreign service or military experience. By the time many graduate, not including outside internship experience, the only application of their knowledge is likely in the writing of essays which do not necessarily demonstrate one’s real critical thinking capabilities. This is gradually changing through programs like Hacking for Defense, but civilian students’ education in national security affairs and war remains largely conceptual not practical, a reality that ought to alarm given the enormous significance of the positions such students may go on to occupy.[xvii] The value of wargames is precisely in resolving this disconnect by allowing students to utilize the models they learn about in their courses, applying the elements of strategic logic in contextualized environments thereby demonstrating their capacity for critical thinking and decision-making.[xviii] As such, in a field that all too often relies on written abstraction and theoretical arguments in educating its upcoming practitioners, wargames are of unique value in filling a much-needed experiential learning and skill demonstration gap. The opportunity to enhance the crafting of strategic mindsets for future foreign policymakers and national security practitioners is one which cannot be disregarded.


[i] For example, see Susan Bryant and Tom Nagle, “Wargaming for the New Great Game,” Modern War Institute (2021).
[ii] This is expressed no more acutely than in Jakub J. Grygiel’s “Educating for National Security,” Orbis 57, no. 2 (2013): 201-16.
[iii] See: Erik Lin-Greenberg, Reid B.C. Pauly, and Jacquelyn G. Schneider, “Wargaming for International Relations research,” European Journal of International Relations 28, no. 1 (2021): 83-109; Matthew Berland and Victor R. Lee, “Collaborative strategic board games as a site for distributed computational thinking,” International Journal of Game-Based Learning (IJGBL) 1, no. 2 (2011): 65-81; Benjamin Holy, “Teaching history with custom-built board games,” Simulation & Gaming 49, no. 2 (2018): 115-133; Marcus Carter, Mitchell Harrop, and Martin Gibbs, “The roll of the dice in Warhammer 40,000,” Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association 1, no. 3 (2014); David Crookall and Warren Thorngate, “Acting, Knowing, Learning, Simulating, Gaming,” Simulation & Gaming 40, no. 1 (2008): 8-26; Dean Dorn, “Simulation Games: One More Tool on the Pedagogical Shelf,” Teaching Sociology 17, no. 1 (1989): 1-18.
[iv] Irving L. Finkel. “On the rules for the Royal Game of Ur,” Ancient Board Games in Perspective (2007): 16-32; Peter Shotwell, “The Game of Go: Speculations on its Origins and Symbolism in Ancient China,” Changes 2008 (1994): 1-62
[v] Peter P. Perla, Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming: A guide for Professionals and Hobbyists, ed. John Curry (, 2011), 157.
[vi] For example, see: Richard Arnold, “Where’s the diplomacy in diplomacy? Using a classic board game in ‘Introduction to International Relations,’” PS: Political Science & Politics 48, no. 1 (2015): 162-166; Dave Bridge and Simon Radford, “Teaching diplomacy by other means: Using an outside-of-class simulation to teach international relations theory,” International Studies Perspectives 15, no. 4 (2014): 423-437; Mikael Mattlin, “Adapting the DIPLOMACY board game concept for 21st century international relations teaching,” Simulation & Gaming 49, no. 6 (2018): 735-750.
[vii] Allan Calhamer, “The Invention of Diplmacy,” Games & Puzzles 21 (1974). Archived from the original:
[viii] Allan Calhamer and Mons Johnson, The Rules of Diplomacy, ed. Cal Moore, 5th ed., (Wizards of the Coast LLC, 2015), 4.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] See: Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979).
[xi] Arnold, “Where’s the Diplomacy in Diplomacy? Using a Classic Board Game in ‘Introduction to International Relations,’” 162–66; Bridge, and Radford, “Teaching diplomacy by other means,” 423-437; Asal, V., I. Miller, and C.N. Willis, “System, state or individual: Gaming levels of analysis in international relations,” International Studies Perspectives 21, no. 1 (2019): 1–11; Rittinger, E.R. “Inspiring students to think theoretically about international relations through the game of diplomacy”. Journal of Political Science Education 16, no. 1 (2020): 41–56; Mattlin, “Adapting the DIPLOMACY board game concept for 21st century international relations teaching,” 735-750; Mattlin, Mikael. “Anarchy is What Students Make of It: Playing Out Wendt’s Three Cultures of Anarchy.” Journal of Political Science Education (2021): 1-10.
[xii] A National Security Strategy Primer, ed. Steven Heffington, Adam Oler, and David Tretler (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2019), 1-4.
[xiii] Calhamer and Johnson, The Rules of Diplomacy, 1-24; “Twilight Imperium Fourth Edition,” Fantasy Flight Games,
[xiv] The development of the Georgetown University wargaming program is well-outlined by Sebastian J. Bae in “Establishing a Wargaming Insurgency at the University,” The Forge (2020).
[xv] Unethical Professional Wargaming: “make your wargame say what you want it to say,” ed. Stephen Downes-Martin (US Command and General Staff College and The CGSC Foundation, 2021).
[xvi] See: William F. Owen, “Unethical Wargaming: Let us be Incompetent!,” 95-102. In Unethical Professional Wargaming: “make your wargame say what you want it to say,” ed. Stephen Downes-Martin (US Command and General Staff College and The CGSC Foundation, 2021).
[xvii] For more information about the Hacking for Defense Program, see: “About the course,” Hacking for Defense,
[xviii] This model has been explored in Carrie Lee and Bill Lewis, “Wargaming has a Place, but is no Panacea for Professional Military Education,” War on the Rocks (2019).