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When War Games Go Wrong

In 2002, the U.S. military played a war game called “Millennium Challenge.” In charge of the "Blue" U.S. Forces were the highest-ranking U.S. generals and admirals. Leading the "Red" enemy was a retired U.S. Marine Corps General named Paul Van Riper.

When you do a war game, you want the enemy to act like a real enemy. You want them to think like a real enemy. You want them to build a strategy like a real enemy. You want them to use real enemy tactics.

That’s what Van Riper did.

Minutes into the war game, Red launched an attack. Red struck Blue’s ships with cruise missiles and suicide skiffs. Sixteen Blue ships were sunk. If it had been a real war, 20,000 American soldiers and sailors would have died.

The war game was supposed to go 14 days, but it was over on the first day. Almost in the first hour. With his immediate attack, Van Riper destroyed the Blue team’s ability to fight. Blue couldn’t go on.

Game over.

But it was just a game, so the Blue ships were re-floated. The board was re-set. The rules were changed to prevent Van Riper from doing the same thing again.

He resigned from the war game.

Van Riper had acted like a real enemy. He thought like a real enemy. He built a strategy like a real enemy would. He used the tactics a real enemy would use.

Which the Blue U.S. Forces didn't expect. Van Riper did things no American general would consider. No American would send Americans on suicide missions. No American admiral would use skiffs before missiles.

But the enemy wasn’t American. Some enemies would use skiffs before missiles. Some enemies would send soldiers on suicide missions. Van Riper acted like a real enemy, and U.S. Forces lost.

Embarrassing. But useful.

When U.S. Forces attacked Iraq the following year, they were better prepared. They were prepared for enemies not attacking like Americans. They had a better idea what the other side would do.

War games are useful. If done right, they help you get outside your head. They let you see how the other side thinks. They let you see the other side’s strategy.

But war games are expensive. And time-consuming. You have to design lots of if-then scenarios. You have to create lots of payoffs, positive and negative, for each interaction. And you have to figure out a way for someone to be the winner. War games take a lot of people, a lot of resources and a lot of time to plan.

Most of us don’t have those things. Spies don’t have them either.

Fortunately, there's a cheaper, less time-consuming way to get inside an enemy or competitor's head. There's an easier way to see their strategy.

It's by using a different set of games: Positive-Sum and Zero-Sum Games. We use those games in a sequence that everyone uses for strategy, as laid out in A Spy's Guide To Strategy.

We look for the enemy's Endgame and their place in the Boss Game inside it.

Then, we reason backward through the enemy's strategy. We reason backward through the Zero-Sum Games of conflict and the Positive-Sum Games of alliance that they'll play in order to get to their Endgame.

The simple version looks like this:


For more on how to identify others' strategies and build you own, see A Spy's Guide To Strategy. You can read the beginning by clicking here.

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