Strategic Thinking Heightens With The Roll of the Dice

July 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
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Constantin Kostenko (r) and Ted Winograd (c) direct James Gillespie (l) as he plays the Cloud Computing Wargame created by Booz Allen Hamilton Incorporated.

War game mimics craps competition to reveal the gains and losses that latest generation of computing entails.

Cloud computing can be a gamble, so one teaching tool uses a casino motif to help information professionals understand the best strategies for incorporating it into their organizations. Using a table and mat that resemble a craps game, teams take on tasks that relate to a real-world scenario. As the competition progresses, participants experience the benefits and risks of deploying traditional information technology, information clouds or a combination of both.

Developed by Booz Allen Hamilton Incorporated, McLean, Virginia, the Cloud Computing Wargame made its debut in March. According to Greg Dupier, senior associate, Booz Allen Hamilton, and one of its developers, the company’s Modeling, Simulation, Wargaming and Analysis group developed the war game. In addition, industry experts with experience in developing games and simulations, many of whom previously worked at companies such as Mattel and Hasbro, complemented the development team. Experts in a number of other fields—including finance, technology, security, strategy and planning—also assisted in the design.

A casual passerby may think that participants are merely shooting craps because the gaming table is so realistic. And although it is called a game, something much more serious is taking place. The 90-minute session begins with a 10- to 15-minute introduction about how the game is played and what participants can expect while playing.

Two or more tables are used in a typical learning experience; up to six players are assigned to each table. Throughout the course of the game, each table of participants competes against the other tables to attain mission value points (MVPs), which are represented by black poker chips. “The MVPs are a fictional way of measuring progress or value within the course of the game,” Dupier explains.

Participants are directed, as an organization, to support tasks based on scenarios. The tasks can include activities such as securing U.S. borders, performing a food safety audit or tracking a weather cell. Players must then build at least three capabilities within their organization to be able to perform those specific tasks. As the game progresses, the number of tasks increases, and each team must support a growing number of scenarios. It is up to each team to choose how to proceed. “So there is some history that retains itself throughout the game,” Dupier relates.

To help them achieve these tasks, teams are given resources. Green poker chips represent money; white poker chips represent personnel. During the session, teams choose how to build capabilities and manage their resources to support these capabilities over time. “The better they do in the game, the more MVPs they receive. If they make certain choices during the game that are less than optimal, they may not get as many MVPs. For example, it might cost them more money or they may have fewer people than they need throughout the course of the game,” he relates. “They might build those capabilities using traditional information technology as they know it or they might build them using some of the different kinds of clouds that exist.”

Tracking a hurricane is an example of a task the teams may be given. The capabilities to support this task can include a geospatial service to keep track of the hurricane’s location, a visualization service to observe and model the interaction of the hurricane, and a tracking and workflow capability to keep a handle on and share information, Dupier explains.

As the game unfolds, surprises occur in two primary ways. At the end of each turn, the players roll a pair of dice to see how the capabilities are performing, and if they have changed. Depending on its ability to meet any last-minute or unexpected changes, a team may gain an advantage or suffer a disadvantage. If the team could not support the change, it draws a risk card that causes it to lose progress, money or personnel, and perhaps not receive as many MVPs. On the other hand, when it is able to support changes that occur, it draws a bonus card, which may reward the team with extra funding or extra staff that it can use in future rounds of the game. The bonus card also may reward the team with additional MVPs.

The second surprise that occurs during the game involves emergency task cards. These are introduced periodically throughout the game and present new challenges to the teams. For example, during the middle of the hurricane tracking, teams may have to address a food quality issue. When this occurs, the teams not only need to continue supporting the task at hand but also deal with the new task, supporting it throughout the remainder of the game.

Players control the pace of the game, which can impact how well a team does, Dupier notes. As one of the conductors of the game, Dupier facilitates the communications among teams to help them understand how well they are doing and coaches participants to ensure that they have the opportunity to explore different aspects of the war game.

Rod Fontecilla, principal, Booz Allen Hamilton, was on hand at the debut of the war game at the Federal Office Systems Exhibition (FOSE) in Washington, D.C. “The war game gives folks the ability to play different strategies to try to support their agencies. It gives them insight into the challenges and the benefits of cloud computing,” Fontecilla says.


The Cloud Computing Wargame board resembles a craps table. Task cards that describe the assignments that teams must complete are revealed throughout the game.

Playing the game improves participants’ understanding about the challenges in training people in the cloud before adopting cloud computing. The game also helps them determine how quickly they want to move to cloud computing for certain capabilities they need to implement to support their organization. “It was interesting to see the strategies that teams took to minimize their risk almost to zero; they stayed totally in traditional information technology, and they were able to win some of the sessions,” Fontecilla relates.

Dupier explains that when developers began to design the game, it was not with one winning approach in mind; the teaching tool does not dictate that participants implement cloud computing for all tasks. “Purposely built into the game are some tasks and capabilities, for example, when it may make more sense not to use cloud computing; but then of course there are some tasks where cloud computing would make more sense,” Dupier notes.

During the sessions at FOSE, participants on different teams employed very different strategies, he adds, with some putting all their information in the cloud and others keeping many of their capabilities in traditional information technology, where they felt more comfortable. “One of the takeaways that players gained was that it’s less about picking your strategy around putting everything in the cloud or keeping everything in traditional information technology. It is more about looking at how are you going to allocate resources—both the staff that you have in the game and the money that you have to spend over time—so that you’re getting the most out of those resources and you’re able to get, in this case, the most MVPs for each turn or throughout the course of the game,” he offers.

Tim Grance, program manager, cyber and network security program, computer security division, Information Technology Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), observed war game participants during the sessions at FOSE. He shares that watching players in this or most other war games helps him understand what other people comprehend about a topic. “We can draw pretty pictures and lines, but you’ve got to get the wet-ware up there working and figure out how to unlock the gut-level issues to be sure that people are coming to grips with what really are the salient issues,” Grance says.

NIST is working with Booz Allen Hamilton on some technical projects in the security area. Part of the purpose of watching people play these types of war games is to determine how to explain concepts in a way they will understand, Grance notes. “Sometimes we’re cursed with too much knowledge, and so we have to figure out ways to communicate complex concepts in a simpler way. What are people’s unrealized fears about this? What are the specific technical questions they raise?” he says.

During any war game, the idea is to create an environment in which decisions must be made under stress, he adds. They aim at teaching decision making for the fastest initial act, which is very challenging in the cyber environment where, like war, the information is incomplete or conflicting. “You want to be able to learn how to make these decisions in that manner when it is not dangerous so that you’re prepared for those things [in an actual event]. That’s one of the reasons for war games. Another reason is to simply master the topic in a way that makes sense to the mission or business you’re supporting,” Grance notes.

One historical example is the Irish Republican Army bombings in London. When an event like this occurs, many decisions must be made, typically by senior leaders who do not necessarily have experience with making decisions in pressure-filled situations, he relates. In the cyber environment, where the situation is physically different but the information is still incomplete, leaders must still make decisions that are acute, accurate and timely, Grance adds.

Dupier points out that this is one aspect that his team looks for in war games. The games help players understand what they will actually do in a situation versus what they plan to do before an incident occurs when they are not under duress, he says.

“People go into the game thinking they know how they are going to react and how other players may react. But once the situation gets underway, people’s tendencies, their decision-making and the results of those decisions come out during the game. And, it’s not always what they expected,” Dupier notes.

However, emergency situations are not the only environments that can benefit from war games, Dupier adds. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton developed a war game for training its own personnel. As employees are promoted within the firm, they take part in another type of game that helps them understand some of their new roles and responsibilities as well as the challenges they may face and how to best address them, he shares.

In what may be a hint of war games to come, Dupier notes that the talk about modernizing the health care system will involve changes in roles and responsibilities in many different types of organizations. Most private doctors’ offices may believe reform is a good idea, until they face the details and processes it will involve. A war game can help health care professionals better understand what automation will mean to their organization. It also can assist in determining how distinct health care groups can facilitate collaboration and cooperation, he adds.

The internal training and cloud computing hands-on exercises are two of the three war games Booz Allen Hamilton has created. The third was developed three years ago for government chief information officers (CIOs). The company’s goal was to create a learning tool that was interactive and full of energy while it forced people to roll up their sleeves and have fun to learn about a CIO’s job. It was aimed not only at helping the CIOs themselves but also assisting the people who work with them.

Because the term CIO can have different meanings to different people, the war game facilitates a common understanding about the duties and responsibilities of the position, as well as some of the risks and challenges CIOs face. In addition, departments that must interact with a CIO learn some of the reasons they must provide certain information or carry out specific tasks. Since the game was created, dozens of different organizations have sponsored war gaming events, Dupier notes.

Booz Allen Hamilton also has developed a series of games about different cybersecurity themes. One helps organizations determine the types of skill sets—in the areas of both people and expertise—that are required to address current cybersecurity issues. While he would not reveal the details, Dupier does divulge that the cybersecurity war game “has a bit of a Chinese checkers notion to it.”

War gaming, Booz Allen Hamilton Incorporated:
NIST Information Technology Laboratory:


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