Business Wargaming for Ambitious and Disgruntled Gamers
Winning the Uncertainty Game: Turning Strategic Intent into Results with Wargaming
“Tabletop games are exposed engineering: they don’t just let us see their nuts and bolts, they let us touch them; rearrange them. Change them.” — Brett J. Gilbert
Absolute certainty is unknowable. People can be 70% or 90% certain of a thing, but anyone that’s 100% certain of anything other than physical phenomena, like gravity, is either lying or just wrong. That said, the want for complete certainty is what sustains business book publishers. So here we are.
Winning the Uncertainty Game is written in dry-as-toast business-y language. The book is meant for execs, or at least middle managers. Gamers are obviously NOT the target audience, but they should be. We’re already superior employees, apparently. Now we just have to take charge of everything.
Parts 1 and 2 cover the need for and history of wargaming, providing context to the idea that gaming can be a tool and not just a pastime. Part 1 discusses how the world is a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) shitshow, and how business wargaming can help a company navigate that shitshow. It covers the logic of business wargaming and how the practice helps organizations reach desired end states. It then goes on to explain the importance of involving the entire business in the wargaming effort.
Part 2 provides historical context by touching on ancient strategy games, the first serious kriegspiel, hobby gaming, and the resurgence of defense and security wargaming. The basic methods are also covered with a quick explanation of how a business wargame works. Specifically, it covers who’s involved, the importance of engagement with the wargame, and what participants do on their turn. None of this is particularly gripping reading but it lays down a floor for anyone that’s never considered using wargaming to win at capitalism.
Part 3 dives into the practice of business wargaming with about a dozen case studies. These are broken up into tactical (or functional), operational, and strategic (or general) wargames. Tactical wargames address functional work, where the rubber meets the road. If you’re reading this and getting turned on, this is where you probably reside. Operational wargames live in middle-management. Strategic wargames address the issues people in the c-suite say only they understand. Issues that are supposedly beyond your comprehension. Remember, they’re not paying you to think about the Big Picture. Stay in your lane, drone.
Most of the examples are business-centric, but a few focus on government/business partnerships. All the case studies are structured by how the scenarios depart from the real world, how they were set up, and what lessons were learned. It’s with these case studies that the authors spell out exactly how wargames reduce uncertainty in business.
Part 3 concludes with an essay on Sensemaking and Gaming. In it, two guest authors try to sell the reader on trusting the practice of business wargaming. This is one of the few chapters that addresses actual game studies. Here the authors praise the gamer mindset. Specifically the ability to merge action and awareness, adapt to immediate feedback, and get immersed in fictional scenarios. They also stress the importance and value of entering the flow state, which gamers excel at.
Part 4 addresses wargaming in business education. I only skimmed it, so I have little to say about it. I never liked school, mainly because it didn’t like me.
Finally, Part 5 digs into actual business wargame development. The design section explains in detail how to build a business wargame. It also explains the importance of engagement, because if the participants can’t or won’t buy in to the wargame, there’s no point. You won’t get the insights you need to make the exercise worth the time and effort.
Overall, building a business wargame is closer to designing a roleplaying game than a board game. It’s almost like designing a Nordic LARP, but with all the drama replaced by lots of data. This is where the designers and sponsors determine what they’re trying to learn from all this and what the final deliverable should look like.
Every scrap of relevant information on the business landscape, including all competitors and regulators, is gathered. All the research is compiled into game books for each team, and data models for the control and market teams. Even though business wargames are played more like RPGs, the models resemble those of heavy historical wargames. Those are researched and adjusted to within an inch of their lives to reflect the real-world effects of machine guns and bombs and whatnot. You’ll have to do the same for ad spends, manufacturing costs, TV ratings, or whatever other KPIs are usually tracked by your industry. Once all that is done, it’s playtested in a “mini game” to iron out the kinks.
Executing the wargame is a fairly straightforward endeavor. Most wargames last three moves, with each move representing a year or more in the real world. Company teams make their moves by creating one of two kinds of deliverables, depending on the wargame. Moves can be done by filling out a template or form describing the organization’s plans. Or, teams construct in-game pitch decks, then present them to the control and market teams. The control team them determines outcomes depending on those moves, plus the market team’s input.
Finally, debriefing and documenting is covered. The control team breaks down what happened using the forms or presentations as a guide, along with the outcomes recorded by the control and market teams. The final document includes what lessons were learned and what the client or sponsor should do with those lessons.
I have some issues with the book. First off, Winning the Uncertainty Game doesn’t mention remote wargaming at all. This is surprising considering it came out in the middle of a pandemic. Luckily multiple hobby gamers and pro wargamers have addressed remote, distributed, and virtual gaming here:
- The Mad Jay Apps for Roleplaying Games Online
- Remote gaming during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Pellegrino: Distributed Gaming Taxonomy
- Virtual Wargaming: Tips and Lessons Learned
I’m also not in love with the chapter order. It makes sense if the authors are targeting executives that might want to hire them as wargaming consultants. For gamers, I recommend reading all of Part 1, then skimming Chapter 5 but reading Chapter 6 carefully. Then skip to Part 5 where they go into the nitty-gritty of wargame design. After that, go back and read the case studies in Part 3. Finally, if you’re an educator or trainer, read Part 4.
The authors don’t present much hard evidence for business wargaming being particularly effective. They provide only case studies and some polling among business leaders. Defense wargaming is having a Come-to-Quantifiable-Jesus moment. Business wargaming needs the same. That said, the practice might work better for the right people, namely gamers. Business wargaming could be powerful mojo in the hands of people who can break things down into ludic metaphors and abstractions.
My last quibble isn’t really the authors’ fault. Their vision of business wargaming is for large companies. Not start-ups, and certainly not disgruntled workers looking for an edge. Hence, there is no guidance for smaller orgs or lone entrepreneurs.
If this is your first step into the serious wargaming world, read Wargaming for Leaders next. It’s a collection of case studies of military, business, and global crisis wargames. Also, read How can gaming help test your theory? for more on why you want to do all this in the first place.
While you’re at it, watch these YouTube videos. What is Analytical Wargaming with Jon Compton preaches that serious wargames should be done by small teams over and over, instead of a huge number of participants that will only do it once. For start-ups, small businesses, and gamers looking to escape the salt mines of Corporate America, this is the way. Pellegrino: Modeling and Games demonstrates the basics of wargame modelling. If you’ve done any kind of quantitative analysis before, you’ll grok it well enough for your own use.
Let me be clear. I’m not telling you to read this book so you can run business wargames for your current employer. Bosses are a cowardly and superstitious lot, and hate anything weird. And unless your employer is one of the few that profited off of the pandemic, they’re not in the mood for out-of-the-box thinking. Instead, use this tool in the seclusion of your own home to plan your next move. A promotion. Starting your own business. Running for office. Whatever. This means either building wargames and never playing them, or playing them solitaire. Either option is fine. Lots of game masters build campaigns they’ll never run, and playing RPGs solo is now a thing thanks to the lockdowns. Just the process of building a serious game leads to actionable insights. Even more so if you can play both sides of a wargame. At the very least, it’s a rehearsal for whatever you’re planning.