We tend not to dwell too much on the specifics of what ‘defines’ a wargame, although sometimes a line has to be drawn for the sake of consistency and to separate games between Wargamer and Strategy Gamer. By and large though, we don’t like to gatekeep or to lay down any laws as to what does and doesn’t count.

Depending on who you talk to, some hobby wargamers can have very strict definitions. For the purposes of his research into how many wargames were released in 2017, Dr. Bruce Geryk kept his definition to strictly historical affairs (although even he admits it there was more than a little whimsy involved). The defence industry, on the other hand, has a deceptively simple definition.

“A model or simulation [with an adversary], using rules, data and procedures.”

This definition is laid down by Peter Perla, who’s best known for his book The Art of Wargaming, published by the Naval Institute Press in 1990. It’s a definition that’s widely accepted by the defence industry, and it can encompass a wide variety of game-types and activities. Crucially, it can allow for war games that don’t actually involve any wars.

It’s with this definition in mind that I explored the scene at Connections UK, a small but growing conference in London that caters to the defence industry and military professionals. Running since 2013, it’s an official ‘franchise’ spin-off of the US-based Connections conference that’s been around since 1993. Its aim is to bring people from across the defence industry together to share ideas and explore how best they can use wargaming in a professional context to train for and otherwise explore (even predict) the current and potential conflicts of our time.

The main crux of the first day was an all-day seminar given by Major Tom Moat introducing people to the various concepts and questions around wargaming for professional purposes. At the same time, an ice-breaker game called Green & Pleasant Land was running. This is was a megagame (which we’ve written about before) designed by Jim Wallman, which tried to simulate a near-future Britain attempting to escalate itself and mobilise towards a state of war, while dealing with any internal crises that may spring up. At the same time, a ‘Red Team’ was trying to disrupt this process by attacking the country’s infrastructure by any means they could short of a military-based offensive (because they were trying to remain anonymous). By stressing the country’s bandwidth, their aim was to derail the mobilisation process so that when the war broke out, Britain would not be able to commit credible assets to the cause.

There was a cabinet team, the MoD itself with its individual branches, various civilian departments like Transport, Health etc… and they all had to come together to try and deal with pre-scripted internal crises, as well as whatever the Red Team managed to throw up. Each team only had limited assets, limited funding and limited ‘cognitive’ capabilities which could get stretched, forcing them to seek help from another department or to simply leave a crises unsolved. The Red Team comprised two teams that had to work together to enact their dastardly plans (internal friction was needed for balancing reasons), as well as a spy. This genial-looking older gentlemen would just wonder up to tables, observe, and leave again. No one challenged him.

To a hobby wargamer, this may stretch our definition of a ‘wargame’ to some extent. There was no war, for one thing, although one was on the horizon. Outside of the context of a grand-strategy game, you rarely see wargames deal with the build-up, the logistical, political and economic hurdles require to get all those forces in place to being with. It’s of less concern perhaps to pre-modern wargames, but with theoretical ‘What-if/WW3’ scenarios having a bit of a resurgence it’s interesting watching how professional wargaming is evolving in an entirely different manner to that of the hobby.

I asked Jim Wallman during his game if simulating the build up to war was just as important of simulating war itself, and in today’s times it seems very much so:

“The issue here is one that’s coming up defence communities. Warfare is not always or sometimes at all, tanks lined up across a border. Full-spectrum conflict is high on everyone’s agenda. If you talk about the challenges in warfighting, or conflict, across all sectors I’m hearing that we should be spending more time on full-spectrum conflict. That IS modern warfare, and that’s in the information sphere, the cyber sphere and the political sphere. The recent events in the Ukraine and the Crimea are examples of how warfare is a lot less focused on the kinetic military aspects.

We live in a time where the security situation can be changed by a single tweet- not tanks or guns. The thing about hybrid warfare is that the war starts before you know it’s started – this game is about a military build up and escalation to war, but for the [Red Team], the war has already started.”

I checked in with various teams throughout the day, trying to get a read on how well they thought they were doing within the context of the game. The Royal Navy were confident they could fight in limited actions, given that a lot of their assets were unused by the mid-point of the game. The only concern they had was that everything was expensive to run. The Army felt they could probably fight a war in Swaziland if pushed. The RAF was concerned that they didn’t have many combat assets left, but they had plenty of transportation.

Meanwhile the MoD itself was full of bravado and PR-speak as to how things were going (it’s worth noting that everyone playing the game was from the defence industry, UK and abroad, and were very much subject matter experts – they knew how to spin a good yarn.)

At the start of the fifth turn. The cabinet all retreated to a secure, fortified bunker for their usual meeting following the arrest of a Speznatz team and the discovery of listening devices in the cabinet rooms. Meanwhile, pretty much every member of the various MoD & military teams were huddled around a single table as one member reported ‘Red Team’ military assets moving in force, their objective unknown. Was this fictionalised abstraction of Britain even ready for war? I asked Jim what the ‘war game’ that could in theory follow this experience would look like:

“The purpose of the military build-up was to either/or deter and defend. So there’s a calculation one could make – if NATO, or even just a few interested nations, turned up with a bunch of troops, the adversary wouldn’t be able to make a land grab without experiencing some pain. It changes their risk calculation.

“If Britain, and possibly by extension NATO, were chaotic, they may risk it on the hope that by the time everyone sorted themselves out it’d be all over. The key thing about the present day, which is separate from conventional wargaming, is that most militaries actually want to achieve their objectives without fighting. So if you can steal a march on your opponent, grab a bit of land without firing a shot – that’s win.

“So the outcome of this game would determine whether or not there was even a fight: have you deterred them? Have you made the opponent think their plan is just going to be a bit too difficult?

“Now, in all of the Russian wargames so far, the general consensus is that if it comes to a stand-up fight in the Baltics, Russian will just roll-over everything there… which is true, but only if you look at the Kinect. You must also look at the political, the economics, the social, cyber… what happens to Russia if it’s cut off from the international banking system, for example? It’s not just about tanks.”

While I wasn’t there to witness it, I later learned that this escalating tension was finally dissipated by an agreement from both sides to withdraw forces from the Baltics. British mobilisation had ultimately gone quite well, and NATO as a whole was prepared to support an Article Five response in order to support their Baltic allies, should it be needed. It should be noted though that while the Red Team had failed to prevent Britain’s build-up in the end, they did manage to somehow get them to withdraw more forces than they needed to), so perhaps they had the last laugh after all.

This was just a snapshot of the first day of the conference – we attended parts of Major Moat’s talk, as well as the key talks across the main two days that followed. Stay tuned for more coverage of the event as we delve into some of the interesting specifics of defence/professional wargaming, as well as the odd divide between digital and analogue.

If you’re interested in reading more about this year’s show in the interim, Professor Rex Brynen wrote the official Post Show Report analysing and summarising how each day went on the PAXsims blog.