Former Marine invents war game to cultivate tactical thinking in the Corps

FMF wargame
Photo credit Courtesy of Sebastian Bae

For many years there has been an underground effort to introduce war games to the rank and file of the U.S. Marine Corps in order to inspire critical and tactical thinking down to the lowest level. While high-ranking officers participate in wars games routinely to play out different scenarios and look for holes in current strategies, they have yet to make it down to the Lance Corporal level.

This is where Marine Infantryman turned CNA analyst and Georgetown professor Sebastian Bae stepped in. Having grown up playing games like Risk, Bae found his post-service career designing war games for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

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"They originally hired me to be like a scenario writer, and an analyst for games that they designed. And I learned how to design games there. It was really challenging. And it was a really amazing combination work, to do research, both to do a lot of creative elements of storytelling and design, but also work with Marines," Bae told Connecting Vets.

Marines play FMF in the field
Photo credit Courtesy of Sebastian Bae

Without any existing war game at the enlisted level of the Marine Corps, Bae set out to make his own on his kitchen table called Fleet Marine Force which currently used a scenario module centered around the INDOPACOM region. "It was like a fun little pet project during COVID and so it wasn't sponsored by the government and is also not a CNA or game," Bae said.

"As for what the game really does, it was really designed to help Marines understand the challenges that the commandant was highlighting in force design 2030 and about the drivers and why the Marine Corps was considering his pivot to expeditionary advanced base operations and why it was making this pivot to Asia," Bae explained.

The game is played with cards that represent different Marine units on a hexagonal map overlay of the Pacific region. FMF breaks down into four stages as players participate called planning, deployment, action, and checks. The players choose units and are given a scenario.

"For instance, in our tutorial session where we called Luzon pass the Chinese are trying to break out first island chain out of the past the Philippines and Luzon," Bae said, "and the US players told hey, like hold on your job is to hold the line and not allow any Chinese ships to pass.

A physical copy of FMF
Photo credit Courtesy of Sebastian Bae

Players then take turns, which represent two hours of time in the scenario in which they can maneuver their units and attack one another. In time, Bae hopes to scale up production of the game, which currently happens on his kitchen table and to introduce different regional scenarios that can be applied within the game. About 64 FMF games have been shipped out to Marine Corps units with many others gaining access to the electronic version.

Tabletop gaming has also had a history of players "home brewing" their own rules and FMF is no exception as Bae has heard from Marines who wanted to simulate scenarios not currently in the game, so they started making their own unit cards.

Since there will never be any single war game that does it all, Bae and others in the field hope to create an entire ecosystem of games.

"What are the games that look at the competition that look at SOF or look at submarine warfare and have those things to really provide us a family of games I think you can pick and choose and sort of use as you need," he said.

"For me, as a designer, as a former Marine, I think we talk a big game about educating and investing in our people and I say educational Wargaming is really a way to show that we do care," Bae says, pointing out that wargaming is a way for Marines to practice, fail, and improve in a simulated environment.

"Educational Wargaming is like, PT for your brain. Just like we go run three miles and have PFT tests and physical fitness, all that stuff like war games, and competing against your peers against the thinking adversary. We don't do that enough," he says.

The best way for military personnel and units to reach out to Bae to request copies of FMF is via his Twitter account.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.