Gamification of Strategic Thinking with a COTS boardgame

Scythe game
Image by yoppy from Flickr with thanks

Editor’s note – while Ludogogy is most definitely a magazine and not a journal, and we normally publish relatively short articles, I thought that this more academically written article, submitted by Thorsten Kodalle, had a lot to offer the readers of Ludogogy, so it was decided to publish it ‘as is’, without editing it to be more like the other articles.

Abstract: The Bundeswehr Command and Staff College (BCSC) conducted a seminar ‘Gamification if Strategic Thinking’ from 16. – 18. March 2020 with students from the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH) and Fernhochschule Hamburg. The seminar used the commercial of the shelf (COTS) board game ‘Scythe’ as the environment for strategy development and strategy implementation. Seminar goals were using management tools like SWOT Analysis, Kanban Board and the OODA-Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) to develop a strategy and implement it in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment against competitors. Kick-off on 19. November 2019 informed students about seminar goal and invited them into a Slack Workspace for further collaboration. Five teams consisting of five players each competed for two days and had to use the decision-making process several times and had to face the consequences of past decisions.

Furthermore, four team members had to red team other competitors and thereby learn how to implement a (business) wargaming technique into the decision-making cycle. Several surveys evaluated in parallel students’ perceptions and performance. This paper describes the seminar from construction to end and reflects on the results and findings.

The first author planned the seminar as an on-premise seminar. However, due to COVID-19, the TUHH and the BCSC cancelled all on-premise seminars. The facilitator (first author) had to facilitate the seminar entirely distributed out of his living room using a variety of web 2.0 collaboration tools like Slack, Trello, Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting and, of course, WhatsApp.

Keywords: Game-Based Learning, Gamification, Wargames, Strategy Development, Strategy Implementation

Introduction: Terminological Grey Zone: Serious Games, Gamification. Game-based Learning, Wargaming

This research, development and education (RD&E) experiment are using the commercial of the shelf (COTS) board game ‘Scythe’ (Stegmaier 2016; Zimmerman 2017). The first author and facilitator of the seminar have never attempted this specific kind of experiment before. He planned the experiment as an on-premise seminar and a proof of concept for the implementation of a complete COTS game as gamification of education or game-based learning approach. This seminar is in a terminological grey area. It does not facilitate a serious game in the common understanding, because ‘Scythe’ was not designed as a serious game. Serious games are usually digital (Jansz and Slot 2019), and Scythe started as a board game. However, the digital version of Scythe on Steam (The Knights of Unity 2018) was available and pointed out by the facilitator as a valuable tool to test strategies. It was also used by some participants precisely for that purpose. In this sense, participants implemented Scythe as a serious game. The Miriam Webster definition of gamification does include the implementation of full games as gamification (Merriam-Webster Dictionaries 2019). In this sense, the seminar approach was gamification. However, the common scholarly understanding of gamification does not understand the implementation of entire games as gamification (Werbach 2019). Game-based learning usually implements games designed explicitly for teaching and training specific knowledge and skills (Al-Azawi et al. 2016). Scythe was designed as a COTS game and is a recreational wargame. The author assumes that recreational wargaming does rely on a cross-functional skill set that is also required for professional wargaming. Scythe as a board game is a manual wargame. The digital version of Scythe on Steam is a constructive simulation of the analogue board game featuring artificial intelligence for opponents (bots). This seminar does incorporate different aspects of serious games, gamification, game-based learning and wargaming. Hobbyists often use the term ‘wargaming’ while the camp of professionals seems to prefer the spelling ‘war gaming’, separating the ‘war’ from the ‘game’. ‘War-gaming’ with a hyphen seems to be a compromise in both camps (Haggman 2019, p. 36). The author uses the term ‘wargaming’ without disregarding the seriousness of war. Peter Perla, a giant of the wargaming community, scholarly defines a ‘wargame’ as ‘a warfare model or simulation whose operation does not involve the activities of actual military forces, and whose sequence of events affects and is, in tum, affected by the decisions made by players representing the opposing sides.’ (Perla 1990, p. 164). Philip Sabin defined recreational wargaming as ‘military simulation games’ (Sabin 2014, 359). The most recent definition of ‘Wargaming’, provided by James ‘Pigeon’ Fielder, combines previous definitions. Wargaming is ‘a synthetic decision-making test under conditions of uncertainty against thinking opponents, which generates insights but not proven outcomes, engages multiple learning types, and builds team cohesion in a risk-free environment.’ (Fiedler 2020). The RAND corporation used a manual wargame, including six-sided dices (D6) to conceptualise NATO Enhanced Forward Presence at NATO’s Eastern flank in the Baltics (Mueller 2016; Shlapak and Johnson 2016). Wargaming has gained popularity again, and War On The Rocks and RAND covered recently different aspects of wargaming: educational (Brynen 2015; Bae 2019; Fiedler 2020; Buitta 2019), analytical (Bartels 2017; Lambert and Quinn 2020; Pournelle 2019; Shlapak and Johnson 2016), manual (David A. Shlapak, Michael Johnson 2016; Mueller 2016), and different topics like Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Schuety and Will 2018; Jensen et al. 2018), and future scenarios (Jensen 2019; Lacy 2019). The most recent comprehensive coverage of the topic is Matthew B. Caffrey’s ‘On Wargaming: How wargames have shaped history and how they may shape the future:’ (Caffrey 2019). Although the author designed the seminar as an on-premise learning experience with face-to-face (f2f) coaching and observation of participants by psychologists, the facilitator also used a Slack Workspace as the information hub from the beginning (Kick-off in November 2019). Therefore, switching to a fully online version with each participant in COVID-19 induced isolation was possible. However, this happened on short notice, and the mix of online tools and web collaboration platforms was more due to chance and circumstance than by design.

Seminar architecture

The BCSC conducted the seminar ‘Gamification if Strategic Thinking’ from 16. – 18. March 2020 with 20 students from the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH) and five students from the Hamburg Fernhochschule (HFH). The seminar used the commercial of the shelf (COTS) board game ‘Scythe’ as the environment for strategy development and strategy implementation. The facilitator divided the participants into five teams, with five players in each team. The teams were named Nordic Kingdoms (Nordics for short), Rusviet Union (Rusviet for short), Crimean Khanate (Crimea for short), Saxony Empire (Saxony for short) and Republic of Polonia (Polonia for short).

Factions in Scythe
Figure 1 Five teams in base edition and two other factions available in the first extension (own visualization)

The idea for a five-player team reflects the number of teams participating. Each team should have the planning capability to observe each other team and predict their strategy (so-called red teaming (Red Teams 2018) leaving one player free for planning on the team’s strategy and receiving strategic advice from her team members. Any team member would become a subject matter experts (SME) in a particular domain, either as a red teamer for another faction and maybe also in a specific area of the game mechanics. The facilitator left the teams alone to self organize as they saw fit. A seminar with five teams results ideally in 25 participants (5 x 5 = 25). A seminar with four teams would be suitable for 16 participants (4 x 4 = 16). Scythe has five factions in the base game and two additional factions in the first extension available. Thus, one could facilitate the seminar with up to 49 participants (7 x 7 = 49).

Polonia Team Struture
Figure 2 Example of a possible team structure for Polonia (own visualization)

Next to the participants, the facilitator and his administrative and organizational support staff would run the so-called white cell, facilitating the game, overwatch rules and present the current state of the game. Each team would have its own board game available to track the game state and as a planning tool for wargaming, in particular, red teaming. Three psychologists were supposed to observe team communication on-premise. The optimal support would be one member of the supporting staff and one psychologist for each team.

Seminar goals

The seminar has several goals. Direct seminar goals were using and thereby training management tools like SWOT Analysis, Kanban Board and the OODA-Loop to develop a strategy and implement it in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment against competitors. These tools should be experienced based on the Wikipedia content but in particular due to active implementation into the decision cycle during gameplay. The facilitator tasked all participants to prepare for the on-premise part of the seminar after the kick-off in November 2019. In particular, he tasked the participants with getting familiar with the game system of Scythe and strategy in general. Regarding the topic of strategic thinking and agile strategy implementation, the facilitator tasked the teams to prepare for two tools, in particular, the Kanban Board and the OODA-Loop. Each team was supposed to have two students who are familiar with the Kanban Board and two students who are familiar with the OODA-Loop. The facilitator saw the SWOT analysis as a fundamental tool for strategy development as a given and just pointed out that the SWOT analysis was one central product at the beginning of the strategy development process. A team had to prepare their SWOT analysis and each red teamer needed to prepare a SWOT analysis for the specific red teamed faction. The expected result would be a total of 25 SWOT analyses. Based on the SWOT analyses, the facilitator tasked the teams to prioritize six critical goals in their strategy and visualize milestones as critical steps for strategy implementation on a Kanban board. The expected result would be a visualization of the grand strategy for each team with a Kanban board as a tool for agile strategy implementation. The overall expected result after using the SWOT analysis at the start and the Kanban Board and the OODA-Loop in (in this case) 16 decision cycles would be a higher competence in using these tools in general and the transferability to other relevant domains. Another direct seminar goal was the training and measuring of the so-called 21st century 4C skills, communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills (van Rosmalen et al. 2014). On-premise teams would discuss their strategy face to face and prepare their products using provided visualization tools in a separated team room while being observed and coached.

Four C Skills
Figure 3 Gamification, skill transfer and 4C skills (own visualization)

An indirect seminar goal was the transfer of the gaming experience to different areas. The facilitator anticipated the participants to experience and feel two central concepts of security policy during gameplay: strategic balance and deterrence. Furthermore, the facilitator anticipated the participants to understand the DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economics) (The DIME/PMESII Model Suite Requirements Project 2009; Khomko 2019; Bishop 2018; Hartley III 2017) framework policy with the benefit of hindsight after playing the game.

Strategic Thinking with Scythe

The facilitator assumed that Scythe is a suitable vehicle for experiencing strategic planning processes. Scythe is a turn-based, highly appreciated strategy game. It is a conflict simulation in an alternative timeline after the first world war where fictional countries expand their influence by using shared and unique abilities. Many different approaches can lead to victory in Scythe (Zimmerman 2017). Probably the best chance to win Scythe is the ability to adapt an economic optimization strategy. In the end, the faction with the highest score in coins wins the game. Resources, territory and achievements are transferred to coins when the game ends. Factions adapt to other faction behaviour exploiting weaknesses, seizing opportunities while balancing military capabilities to deter other factions. Most importantly, Scythe provides a rich and complex environment in only two hours of gameplay for experienced players. These characteristics make Scythe a suitable tool for a three-day seminar. The facilitator did not lay out a specific approach to the topic of strategy. For the participants, the Wikipedia coverage of strategic management with the two branches of strategic planning and strategic thinking, resulting in a strategy is sufficient as the starting point for the seminar. However, he emphasized the Clausewitzian wording for military strategic planning approaches, in particular, effect-based planning. Figure 4 covers the generic terms of the strategic planning process and the generic terms of the NATO strategic framework. Starting with the analysis of the strategic environment, applying a strategic framework and applying strategy implementation. The effects-based planning approach starts with the identification of a desirable endstate (ends) and delivers strategic objectives. Ways explore specific activities (for example managing, scaling, enhancing something) to perform and means explores specific factors (for example capabilities, characteristics, development and delivery). A specific capability (mean) could be enhanced (way) and the delivery (mean) managed (way) to achieve a strategic objective (end). Scythe ends after one faction reaches six out of ten achievements (game term: stars).

Strategic Goal Planning
Figure 4 Generic: Strategic Goals and planning process (own visualization)

The end state of the game is, therefore, one faction with six stars and any other faction with less than six stars. Stars, territory and resources transfer to money (game term: coins) based on a multiplier defined by the factions popularity. The result might be that a faction with less than six stars wins the game. This duality reflects the requirement for careful planning and awareness for

SWOT, Kanban board and OODA-Loop

The SWOT analysis is a common starting point for modern business strategy (Austin 2015). The facilitator assumed the Kanban board to be a straightforward tool to use for any agile planning requirement, particularly compared to Scrum. Scrum requires a scrum master and proceeds along specific periods (sprints). Kanban boards are suitable for self-organizing teams with no scrum master available and without time restriction (Alexander 2017). The facilitator also assumed that the introduction into OODA-Loop would be valuable as some experts characterize the OODA-Loop as the application of the scientific method to the practice of strategy development (Richards 2012). The OODA-Loop started as an American military planning tool but evolved into a business strategy tool. It is common in the native English-speaking military and the business community. However, it is not common in the none native English speaking community. Figure 5 depicts a more detail visualization of the OODA-Loop with the required feedback loops for the different phases. This diagram depicts ‘Decision’ as the hypothesis and ‘Action’ as a test. This comparison illustrates the notion that the OODA Loop is the application of the scientific method on the process of strategy development.

OODA Loop with feedback
Figure 5 OODA-Loop with feedback adapted from (Moran 2008)

Limitations through online facilitation

The main disadvantage of the improvised online facilitation was the high time demand for communication and tracking the state of the game in the Slack workspace. This activity took much more time than expected due to several hurdles imposed by technical frictions. The facilitator assumed the participants to be able to play Scythe two times on Monday before the actual competition on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thereby, the advantages of testing a strategy and applying wargaming red teaming techniques within the group would have been evenly distributed in a controlled on-premise environment. Monday was reserved for strategy development without the opportunity for a test run. Monday ended with the first round of the game as a technical proof of concept. Tuesday covered nine turns and Wednesday the last four turns leaving enough time for an after-action review (AAR). Close observation of team internal communication was not possible; direct coaching on the use of Kanban boards was not possible. However, the digital version implemented with Trello worked considering the circumstances very well. The coaching of the use of the OODA-Loop was not possible due to lack of time and missing a suitable online visualization tool. The facilitator assumes that the voluntary surveys would have a higher participation rate in an on-premise setting.

Surveys before, during and after the seminar: design, results and lessons learned

The facilitator planned the seminar as a proof of concept and Dr Maren Metz supported with statistical evaluation capabilities provided by the HFH. Surveys aimed to measure a set of different data points before, during and after the seminar. There was an initial survey, a strategy development survey, five surveys parallel to the game (after the first turn, after the fifth turn, after the tenth turn, after the fifteenth turn) and an exit survey. Twenty-five participants had the opportunity to provide twenty-five set of data (25). The results should provide beside the facilitator’s observation an additional perspective on the evaluation of this proof of concept approach. Questions targeted the mood of the participants during the seminar, appreciation of the provided strategic tools and evaluation of the importance of 4C skills. The survey provided a fluctuating set of data based on the various degree of participation: initial survey (15), strategy development survey (10), first turn (15), the fifth turn (12), the tenth turn (12), the fifteenth turn (12) and an exit survey (20). Data sets. The survey results provided a detail view of the state of team communication and collaboration. For example, Team Saxony did not take part in the initial (0) and strategy development survey (0), increased participation in the first turn (1), increased participation further in the fifth turn (2) and finished with a high degree of participation in the exit survey (4).

Lessons learned: facilitators need to encourage participants more to take part in surveys. The problem was the low participation at the beginning. The number of surveys did not result in lower participation at the end of the seminar, quite the contrary.

Participants and gaming experience

Fifteen participants took the initial survey; twenty participants took the exit survey. The age distribution ranged from 19 to 50 years, with an average age of 25. This distribution is not surprising, considering that most participants were regular students from an on-premise university (TUHH). 55% of the participants were female, 35% male, 10% diverse. 100% liked board games (73% without caveat, 27% with the caveat of providing a strategic challenge). 73% liked computer games (27% with the caveat of providing a strategic challenge), 20% explicitly disliked computer games. 87% played board games less than once a week, 80% played computer games less than once a week. Only 13% identified as regular computer gamers (more than once a week). Almost no participant did know Scythe before the seminar (94%).

Lessons learned: facilitator could divide teams into female and male-only teams or female-only participants to compare decision behaviour between genders. Facilitators could also adjust teams for an even distribution of experienced gamers.

Recommendation for seminar and Scythe as a tool for teaching

The facilitator assumed that Scythe would make fun to play and the seminar appreciated by the participants. 90% would recommend the seminar (Would you recommend this seminar overall? 75% yes, 15% rather yes) and 95% enjoyed Scythe (How did you like Scythe? 60% good, 35% very good). The facilitator was in particular interested in answer to the question: Would you recommend Scythe as a tool for teaching strategic thinking? 80% of the participants would recommend Scythe as a tool for strategic thinking (30% very strong recommendation, 50& yes).

Lessons learned: the facilitators should use Scythe also for further seminars.

Team mood from beginning to end

Team mood increased during gameplay, starting with 46% neutral/bad mood after the first turn which decreased to 33% after the fifth turn, 8% after the tenth turn, 17% after the fifteenth turn (shortly before the end of the game in turn 16). The mood in the teams was at the end of the seminar, 75% good (45% very good, 30% good). This result indicates that though 80% of the participants lost the game, this did not impact the team spirit significantly. The facilitator assumes that successful gamification results in high intrinsic motivation and thereby increased engagement with the material and content. Feelings, especially negative feelings, such as the feeling of being overwhelmed, wanting to resign, not being able to do it, not being valued or not being able to contribute much, are perceived more intensively over time. It depends on internal resources and how they are dealt with so that feelings do not influence actions. The feeling of appreciation within the group fluctuated significantly throughout the game. After turn one, 67% of the participants denied poor appreciation, after turn ten only 50%, but after turn 15 92% of the participants denied poor appreciation. Towards the end of the game, the feeling of appreciation seems to have increased significantly again.

Lessons learned: the facilitators could adjust surveys for additional indicators of intrinsic motivation, in particular, try to measure the state of flow during gameplay.

Appreciation of strategic tools: Kanban board and OODA-Loop

After 15 game turns, 75% of the participants saw the Kanban board as somewhat helpful or very helpful. However, as expected, the digital tools are not being used properly. Even after 15 turns, 33% of the participants stated that they had not used the OOAD loop. This result indicates that most of the participants concentrated on the Kanban board, where after 15 turns only 7% of the participants stated that they had not used it. Due to the limitations of online facilitation, the observation of the usage of the OODA-Loop fell short. The facilitator assumes that therefore the usage of this strategic tool fell short by the teams.

Lessons learned: the facilitators need to establish a transparent and visible approach to observe and coach the implementation and adaption of the OODA-Loop during the decision-making process. Trello is an excellent tool to observe and coach the implementation and adaption of the Kanban board.

4C skills

Creativity is hidden as an essential resource in a complex situation to develop new strategies or to break free from established patterns of thought and action. 4C competency ratings shift as the game progresses. After a game turn, 46% of the participants state that creativity is the essential 4K competence for the next rounds; after five rounds, only 17% of the participants state this. The value remains comparatively low until the end of the game. In contrast, the skills ‘critical thinking’ and ‘communication’ are becoming increasingly important. In retrospect, 46% of the participants regard ‘communication’ as the essential 4C competence for the entire game. The more complex the situation, the more emphasis participants placed on communication with simultaneous communication frictions.

Observations during and after the seminar

The facilitation of the seminar occupied the first author and facilitator to a very high degree. The improvised online facilitation resulted in one-person facilitation out of the first author’s living room with organisational support by three locally distributed supporting staff members. This procedure was overwhelming, and a lot of planed observations were not possible. However, the facilitator observed team communication inside the WhatsApp Groups. He observed team collaboration long after regular office hours into the night. Team Crimea conducted red teaming up to 10:30 p.m. and decided about a decisive strategic decision. Many conversations inside the WhatsApp Groups took place, and after the seminar, Team Nordics disclosed the secret diplomacy they conducted to snatch victory from Team Crimea in turn 16. This observation confirms the facilitator’s assumption that gamification provides intrinsic motivation to engage participants to a very high degree with the material, content and in this case, also the process of red teaming.

The ad-hoc and distributed nature of the seminar provided participating students with new experiences in self-organization and online collaboration. Some of them used online collaboration tools for the first time to coordinate their actions with multiple other groups.


The main advantage of the seminar was that it took place despite the challenging circumstances. The main disadvantage was that Scythe could only be played one time and not three times. Therefore, survey results do not reflect the effect of a wargame being repeated before the real competition. The steep learning curve during strategy development in implementing tools for strategic thinking like the SWOT analysis or the OODA-Loop could not be observed. However, facilitator observation of player activities and behaviour during and after the seminar confirmed the assumption that Scythe is a useful and appreciated learning tool for strategy development and introduction into wargaming in general. The seminar and game concept also confirmed hypotheses and underlying assumptions for the thinking and acting of people in complex and stressful situations. For example, methods used in complex situations become essential if they contribute to the structuring. However, a stressful situation means that not all or even some of the methods are dealt with adequately.

As a proof of concept experiment, the results are auspicious. Gamification can be a valuable and motivating approach, for example, to develop, adapt and test strategies. Retrospectively the learning objectives were achieved. The type of implementation encouraged the authors to repeat this seminar as an on-premise seminar in the future but also to conduct similar types of seminars in a decentralized manner. They will also enhance the improvised online-only facilitation based on lessons learned.

: A COTS Boardgame for Learning Strategy Development and Strategy Implementation (due to COVID-19 improvised entirely online distributed facilitation)

LTC Thorsten Kodalle, The Bundeswehr Command and Staff College,,; Clemens Harten, Hamburg University of Technology,; Prof Dr Maren Metz, HFH · Hamburger Fern-Hochschule,

Thorsten Kodalle

Thorsten Kodalle LTC (General Staff) lectures on security policy at Command and Staff College of German Armed Forces with particular focus on NATO, Critical Infrastructure and Cyber. He is member of NATO research task group “Gamification of Cyber Defense/Resilience” and NATO research group ”Distributed Wargaming in a COVID-19 World”. He is an experienced facilitator of manual wargaming on operational level for courses of action analysis, for operational analysis, operations research, serious gaming and especially for matrix wargaming.

In his free time, he likes to play Gloomhaven, Terraforming Mars, and he just pledged for a gaming table on Kickstarter. And he is waiting for the PS5 and the sequels for God of War and Spiderman.

References and further reading

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