Learning Geospatial and Terrain Analysis through Gaming

Beyond “Dunn Kempf” and “Avalon Hill:” What to consider when integrating gaming into training and education


The use of gaming in education and training, especially in the realm of military studies and national security, is a fairly mature topic—from HG Wells’ first publication of Little Wars in 1913 to today’s extensive use of computer and role player-based wargames for training exercises within the U.S. military and homeland security communities. Strategy and wargaming, which grew into a somewhat mainstream hobby in the early 1970s, provide unique opportunities for learning beyond the traditional methods of classroom lecture or individual study.

As an avid war and strategy gamer since childhood, I’ve come to appreciate how the learning I experienced through board, miniature, and video games was in many ways strikingly similar to my professional development as a tactical intelligence officer in the Army. Through games such as Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader and Blitzkrieg, Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40K, and the Call of Duty and Battlefield video game series, I have spent untold hours over the past decades practicing several aspects of threat analysis. This was especially true in the required skills of geospatial and terrain analysis for military operations as gaming provided what was probably my only source of geospatial education prior to joining the military.

War and strategy games, as the term suggests, require critical and analytic thinking for a player to be successful—i.e. win. As a learning method, gaming provides a relatively low-cost, safe, and risk-adverse way for the student/learner to analyze various situations and scenarios, test critical decisions and decision-making processes, and vicariously experience the events and outcomes of their decisions within a simulated environment. As most games are contests pitting one player against another or a group of players against a set of rule mechanics, they provide learners an opportunity to move from passive learning to become active participants with a vested interest in the results of their analysis and decisions. While winning is the goal of a game, learning is the ultimate objective from a training and education perspective.

Perhaps the most critical skills inherent to learning through strategy gaming is the analysis of terrain and geography relative to the game’s subject. One of the most challenging tasks within any intelligence organization is the constant need for training and professional development of its personnel. Training programs must include both initial and sustainment training for entry, journeyman, and advanced skill levels. Fortunately for geospatial training, strategy games offer a wide variety of readily available learning materials and platforms, with commercial off-the-shelf games leading the way.

As the geospatial intelligence workforce continues to integrate the Millennial Generation with Generation Z just around the corner, gaming within education and training programs are going to become more important as visual learning methods for these younger analysts. Gaming is a visual hobby by its interactive nature and fulfills many of the nine moments of learning need for both academic students and those learners already in the workplace.[1]

9 Moments of Learning Need

 While traditional classroom education is geared toward new and more learning, gaming provides an interactive approach that allows training programs to integrate when knowledge must be remembered, applied, and used to solve problems and react to changes. It also provides a visual way to prepare learners to teach themselves.

One of the most critical features and benefits of using strategy gaming to learn and reinforce geospatial and terrain analysis concepts is that gaming requires learning to be conducted within the context of a dynamic problem set—the game itself. Through a game’s contest or setting, learning geospatial analysis is achieved as an integrated part of many other concepts such as decision-making, tactics and technologies, and related battlefield and operational conditions such as morale, logistics, economics, and diplomacy. Not only must participants understand basic features and principles of geospatial and terrain analysis, they must also be able to understand and apply these principles with the intent to achieve overall success through the established conditions of the game.

Types of Strategy Games for Learning

To those not familiar with gaming or the gaming community, there are thousands of potential games that could be incorporated into geospatial learning. These include board games, miniatures games, and videogames as three broad categories. Board gaming itself has been cited as having entered a new renaissance with the other two types experiencing similar expanses to their fan bases.[2]  Following is a breakdown of how each of these three types can be incorporated into a learning environment for geospatial analysis.

Board Games

Wargames and strategy games using a heavy cardstock or paper map are a simple, cost-effective method to integrate gaming into a learning environment. An education or training program can easily introduce a strategy game into its curriculum as these games run from $60 to $100 depending on size and level of complexity. To capture the scenario and gameplay effectively, board games must include a higher level of abstractness in order to simulate some of the terrain and other environmental effects. War and strategy game designers will generally use one of three formats to depict geography and/or terrain:

Hexes and Counters: These can be considered “old-school” wargames that became popular in the early 1970s. Hexes or squares are used to uniformly segment the map aligning each hex to the various types of depicted terrain. They are made for the more serious strategist using counters for military units and other battlefield conditions. Games using hexes or squares are best suited for tactical to operational level simulations and therefore require similar types of terrain analysis.

Partial map of the game “The Battle of Dresden 1813: The Incomplete Victory” by New England Simulations, 1995. Photo by author.

Using the ubiquitous OCOKA acronym (Observation and Fields of Fire, Cover & Concealment, Obstacles, Key Terrain, and Avenue of Approach), players must analyze their area of operations for offensive and defensive maneuvering. Some of the more complex tactical hex and counter wargames include rules and mechanics that allow for line of sight determination based on natural and man-made obstacles such as elevation and buildings, respectively. In this way participants can determine areas of observation as well as both cover and concealment while planning their next moves.

Partial Map of the game “Heroes of Normandie: Carentan” by Devil Pig Games, 2015. Photo by author.

Area Control: To more aesthetically capture larger areas, some board games portray their maps using non-uniformed areas. Areas are designed by the game creator based on regional characteristics and significant barriers to movement and operations such as mountain ranges and waterways. Each area is characterized by the predominant terrain within it where play is usually centered around control of each area in order to achieve objectives. Area control maps are best suited for operational to strategic level analysis in which tactical level operations are simplified. This allows strategic level analysis and decision-making without burdening the player with the details and idiosyncrasies within each area.

Partial Map of the game “Britannia” by Fantasy Flight Games, 1986. Photo by author.

Point-to-Point: One of the newest methods to portray higher level simulations are point-to-point maps. In these games, terrain is displayed similarly to area control, but instead of adjacent areas sharing a common border they are only connected to other areas through networked links. Games using point-to-point maps already have a basic level of analysis built into their design, so if there is impassable terrain between two given points on the map there will not be a link between the two. Because of this they are not suited for tactical terrain analysis, limiting analysis and decisions to higher operational and strategic levels. Point-to-point maps do a great job by simplifying the area of operations into a network of critical areas that must be contested, thereby streamlining analytic processes and helping focus on key nodes and objectives.

Partial Map of the game “Wilderness War: The French and Indian War” by GMT Games, 2006. Photo by author.

Miniature Games

A more visually realistic way to develop skills for tactical analysis is with games and simulations that use miniatures. As wargaming developed into a hobby during the Cold War, the U.S. Army was quick to pick up on the learning capabilities for games. Contracting with a gaming company called GHQ, the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth created a wargame called Dunn Kempf centered around the hypothetical defense of West Germany’s Fulda Gap.[3]  This game, shown in use at Fort Knox with U.S. Army Armor Officer Basic Course students in 1989, was used for decades, providing not only accurate 1/285th-scale military vehicles, but also a detailed relief map of Central Germany with contours and elevations for terrain analysis.

Armor lieutenants learning tactics using the “Dunn Kempf” game at the U.S. Army Armor Officer Basic Course, Fort Knox , Ky., January 1989. Photo by author.

Miniature strategy games provide learners with a three-dimensional, visual perspective that allows for every aspect of OCOKA to be portrayed, identified, and analyzed. Virtually every historic time period can be covered from ancient to modern warfare. Terrain analysis can also be effective for science fiction and fantasy-based wargames depending on the ability of the game to accurately capture the fundamental elements of terrain.

Ancient Egyptians under Ramses II at the Battle of Qadesh, Essex Miniatures. Photo by author.

Miniature strategy games are best suited for tactical level analysis as higher level geographic analysis is unpractical. Use of them in a training or education environment is limited as they are more expensive to maintain and require significant set-up and take-down time. They can also be more complicated than most board games and require a significant amount of space.

Video Games

Video games are often overlooked as a learning platform for geospatial and terrain analysis but have the greatest potential for analytic learning at all three levels of operation. Of the three noted categories, they are the most immersive, easiest to learn, and provide the most flexibility in terms of training resources, scheduling, and depiction of the environment and animated battlefield effects.

Perhaps the most well-known wargames are first-person shooter games. Here, the player’s perspective is from the viewpoint of a single individual or vehicle within the game. In this environment, players are required to study the lay of the land from a limited perspective, though there are usually options to look at a map to provide situational awareness. Teamwork and coordination are essential for success, but good players will also develop skills such as distance estimation, line of sight, and obscuration effects, and even account for other factors built into the game. Unfortunately, many games eschew realism for cinematic effect to provide entertainment value.

World of Tanks from Glaser, Florian. (10 December 2012). “World of Tanks V 8.0 Benchmarked.” Image courtesy of notebookcheck.net.

 As other video games lean toward operational and strategic level wargaming, their ability to provide learners with higher level terrain analysis is enhanced. While some games stick to a 3D immersive environment, others can be representations of similar board games and even go as far as using hexes or area control maps for terrain. Unlike their physical counterparts, there is no limit to the scale or complexity, or to the strategic and operational level, beyond development and administration costs.

The military is no stranger to instituting the latest gaming technology as computer-based training. In the 1980s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed a unit-level training using a wide-area network of several vehicles and tactical operations centers.[4] Called SIMNET, this training simulator was instituted at several facilities worldwide handling several battalions worth of participants in mock computerized battles.

As a caveat, most of the strategy and wargames that fit into each of these categories are developed primarily for fun and in turn generate sales and revenue. While teaching geospatial and associated intelligence analysis is not the goal, the result is a wide variety of learning tools available at relatively low cost.

Integrating Gaming into Geospatial Analysis Training

As tempting as it is from an entertainment perspective, simply grabbing a game off the shelf and introducing it to a training event is hit-or-miss in terms of actual geospatial learning value. There are several things to consider when planning training curriculum:

  • Learning Objectives: Instructors must develop an effective learning plan to include learning objectives for integration of gaming into training or education. Pure gaming is a hobby so use of it as a learning method requires the additional inclusion of discussion, after-action reviews, and lessons learned from students. These need to be displayed prominently for visitors to counter the misperception that students are not learning if they’re having too much fun.
  • Playability: To make games playable (and sellable), creators must include a certain level of abstractness within their game, thereby condensing certain actions, time, and complexity. There is fine line between capturing the realism of a given conflict and providing a mechanism for adequate geospatial analysis. Look for a game that can be conducted to conclusion without skipping the required analytic elements.
  • Realism: Having a game match the current time period is not a critical requirement for terrain analysis. Games from different historic periods of even fictitious conflicts can be of use to learners. While the scenario, technologies, and tactics can change, the fundamentals of geospatial and terrain analysis remain the same. When evaluating a game for potential use consider whether these learning fundamentals will be reinforced as a top criteria.
  • Mission Fit: A game chosen for a particular training environment also needs to fit the mission and purpose of the training audience. Match the game to the appropriate level of operations, complexity, and training environment of the organization providing the training.
  • Physical, Information, and Social Environments: While physical geographic analysis is important to success in almost every strategy game, the most effective games for training and education are those that allow learners to analyze geography and terrain in the context of all other facets of a conflict. Those that can effectively include more asymmetric elements such as economics or weather will be better suited toward overall learning.
  • Fun Factor: Finally, use of a game within a learning environment needs to include an element of fun. Students learn differently, and some are simply not suited to the learning techniques implicit with games. The correct game is one that aligns with learning objectives, but also gains and maintains the attention and interest of the participants.

Battle from “Warhammer: Age of Sigmar” by Games Workshop. Photo by author.

In an environment dominated by the need to learn about geospatial collection, information, and visualization systems along with other related technologies, it is important to remember that geospatial intelligence personnel of all types have a continual need to learn, relearn, remember, and apply the fundamentals of geospatial and terrain analysis throughout their careers. Strategy and wargaming are simple and effect methods to introduce, strengthen, and maintain those skills.


About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is an Associate Vice President in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity at the American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Kleinsmith is one of the subjects of a book entitled “The Watchers” by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called “Able Danger” tracking Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He resides in Virginia with his wife of 26 years. He can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu.


[1] Torrance, Megan. (18 June 2015). “Planning for 9 Moments of Learning Need”. Accessed from https://www.slideshare.net/torrancelearning/planning-for-9-moments-of-learning-need

[2] Kruzman, Diana. (31 July 2017). “Bored of digital games?  Join the board game renaissance”. USA Today; https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2017/07/31/bored-digital-games-join-board-game-renaissance/476986001/

[3] Fulton, Richard P. (March 1979). “Gaming with Dunn Kempf: The Army’s Packaged Battle Simulation System”. Wargamer’s Digest

[4] Miller, D.C. and Thorpe, J.A. (August, 1995). “SIMNET: The Advent of Simulator Networking”. Proceedings of the IEEE. 83(8), pp. 1114-1123.

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