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Enhancing Cyber Wargames

The launch of the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory first Defence Wargaming Centre in December 2019 is an opportunity for future wargaming design. While current games do enable some knowledge transfer, the tried-and-tested techniques employed by the serious games community would enhance these exercises with more effective strategising and training mechanisms. This article highlights how the characteristics of cyberspace require a distinct approach to wargames, and provides recommendations for improved development and practice of cyber wargames by drawing on established games design principles.

The use of games in educational settings has been recognised since the 4th century BC. Wargames, however, are a more recent invention. Wargaming first emerged in modern times via the Prussian Army. Kriegsspiel, as it was called, was used to teach tactics to officers as part of the Prussian Military Reforms in the wake of their devastating defeats at the hands of Napoleon. Ever since, military wargames have become a feature of training military personnel. The UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Red Teaming Guide defines a wargame as ‘a scenario-based warfare model in which the outcome and sequence of events affect, and are affected by, the decisions made by the players’. These games, as noted by the MoD’s Wargaming Handbook, can be used to simulate conflicts in a low-risk table-top style setting across all levels of war and ‘across all domains and environments’. Wargames have repeatedly proved themselves a reliable method in communicating and practising military strategy that can be applied to explore all varieties of warfare.

As cyber becomes an increasingly important warfighting domain, both by itself and in collaboration with other domains, cyber wargames have begun to be played with the same frequency and importance as the traditional domains. Since 2016, the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) has annually coordinated Crossed Swords, focusing on technical training, while NATO’s annual Cyber Coalition focuses on goals including information-sharing and collaboration and the Atlantic Council’s Cyber 9/12 focuses on strategic policy-making. Military examples include the U.S. Naval War College’s Defending Forward wargames, where, in its simplest form, cyber defenders (‘blue teams’) defend against cyber adversaries (‘red teams’). While these games are a great step forward in understanding, analysing, and preparing for the problems of cyberwarfare, these exercises tend to draw on existing conceptions of traditional serious games. This represents a missed opportunity; the cyber domain differs from traditional conflict in ways that warrant a fresh look at the design of wargames.

By design, wargames create an abstracted model of reality containing primary assumptions and simplifications that allow the model to be actionable. Underlying assumptions include: that the enemy is known, rational and ruthless; that the conflict being modelled is zero-sum in nature; that the games are effective tools even without specifically conceptualising how knowledge transfer takes place; and that the scope of the game should mirror reality as closely as possible. While these assumptions are appropriate for—or at least not detrimental to—traditional models of kinetic warfare, they are problematic for cyber wargame design. The challenges with each underlying assumption are described in turn.

The Known, Ruthless, and Rational Enemy

As Larry Greenemeier noted a decade ago, in cyberspace, the fog of war is exacerbated. While traditional warfare often limits available knowledge on an adversary’s location, in the cyber domain the reality is that defenders may not know who the enemy is nor their goals. When the enemy is an unknown, they can appear to act in an irrational way, at least from the perspective of the defender. This is due to the inherent asymmetry of the attacker. Through reconnaissance, the attacker will more than likely hold more information about intended targets than the defenders. Each of these issues, individually and collectively, are typically under-emphasised in most rigid wargames.

A Zero-Sum Nature of Conflict

Rigid wargames use a unity of opposites in their design, the goals of one side are diametrically opposed to the other. This creates a zero-sum game in which the goal of both the red and blue teams is the destruction of the other side. However, cyber conflict holds features of non zero-sum games, such as how the victory of one side does not always come with an associated loss to the other. Additionaly, there is an asymmetry introduced that should be addressed in the game design stage.

Knowledge Transfer: What is Actually Being Taught?

Another assumption made in the deployment of wargames is that they teach. However what is being taught is not as closely examined. In general, serious games can be categorised into two broad types: low road (or reflexive transfer) games; and high road (or mindful transfer) games. Low road transfer games are concerned with direct training of a stimulus and a response in a controlled environment that is as similar as possible to the context that the player is presented with in real life. For example, a flight simulator. The second type high road games are designed to encourage players to mindfully make connections between the context of play and the real world. Reflexive games are more likely to emphasise speed whereas mindful transfers are more likely to emphasise communication between players. Games must be designed using the knowledge transfer type most appropriate to the intended learning outcomes of the game.

Overenthusiastic Scoping

Cyber operations do not exist in isolation from traditional models of warfare. The integration of cyber operations with kinetic warfare, however, dramatically increases the complexity. Even attempting to capture the whole cyber landscape in a single game runs the real risk of detail overload, decision paralysis, and distracting the player from the game’s intended learning objectives. The longer it takes to learn to play, the less time the player has available to learn from the play. In reality, one cannot accurately simulate the real-world threat landscape without sacrificing effective learning (unless the learning point is simply to illustrate how complex the cyber threat landscape might be). For example, if the cyber wargame is focusing on the protection of critical national infrastructure, then side-tasks focusing on several other industries are likely to confuse, rather than assist, participants in achieving the desired learning goals.


How should we best approach the challenge of effective cyber wargame design?

We propose that designed cyber wargames must be in line with the following four principles:

Include ‘partial knowledge’ states.If the cyber wargame player has full knowledge of the game state, the game becomes nothing more than an algorithmic recall activity where a player can predict which actions are likely to result in successful outcomes. Certain ludic uncertainties can be included to induce ‘partial knowledge’, simulating the fog of war as required for each game.

Include ‘asymmetric positions’ for the players.The character of cyberwar is better modelled through asymmetric relationships between players. Cyber wargame designers need to consider the benefits to having this asymmetry inside the game.

Confirm learning objectives and knowledge transfer type before commencing design.Both low road and high road transfer games are valuable, but they serve different functions in the learning environment. A conscious choice for whether the game is attempting to promote low road or high road transfer should be confirmed before game design commences to ensure the appropriateness of the game.

Clearly scoped game to explore specific challenges.A well-scoped smaller game increases players’ willingness to replay games multiple times, allowing players to experiment with different strategies.


As both cybersecurity and wargames increase in importance and visibility, so does research on the use of cyber wargaming as a pedagogical tool for practitioners, policymakers, and the military. Existing principles within the games design profession around clear scoping of goals, game narratives, and appropriate player capabilities may all be applied to enhance existing cyber wargame design. The inclusion of partial knowledge states and asymmetric player capabilities both reflect crucial aspects of the cyber domain, while explicit attention to a game’s desired learning objectives and scope ensures that the resulting designs are as effective as possible. In a world in which cyberspace is only expected to become a more common feature of modern conflict, it is strongly advised that the MoD’s Defence Wargaming Centre leverages these tools and training opportunities. In the asymmetric and unpredictable field of cyber warfare, we need all the advantages we can get.

Read more at Woods LLP

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