Littoral Commander: Indo-Pacific (LC) is not your typical wargame – both in its origins and its purpose. I originally designed Littoral Commander – previously known as “Fleet Marine Force” (FMF) – in 2020 as an educational wargame for professional military education (PME). As a former Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and present-day professional game designer for the defense enterprise, I wanted to create a wargame that explored the future of warfare in a way that was both informative and engaging.
To fully understand Littoral Commander, one must understand the transformative change the Marine Corps is undergoing. Under Commandant General David Berger, the Marine Corps is implementing a service-wide transformation called Force Design 2030 (FD2030), which aims to redefine and modernize how the Marine Corps trains, equips, and operates in contested littoral and maritime environments. A central element of FD2030 is the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR), a newly formed unit that emphasizes long-range fires, integrated air and missile defense (IAMD), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
Moreover, the MLR and associated concepts such as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) and the Stand-In-Force (SIF) are only part of a wider transformation of the Marine Corps. These concepts served as the foundation for my design. Littoral Commander was designed to be an intellectual sandbox that would enable Marines to explore, test, learn, and expand on the core tenets of FD2030. How will the Marine Corps fight in the future – this lies at the heart of Littoral Commander.
The Hidden Math in Familiar Mechanisms
The essence of Littoral Commander lies in the concept of the sensor-to-shooter chain, also known as the F2T2EA (find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess) process in the military. In simpler terms, it pertains to the way in which a unit detects and locates a target and carries out an action against it. This can take the form of launching a missile to strike a ship or a cyber-attack to disrupt their networks. This process on the battlefield is exceedingly complex, but I wanted to create an accessible game for beginner wargamers, so I decided to smuggle as much math, analysis, and research as possible into the game – without making it an unbearably boring grind to play. I wanted the players to learn from playing the game, but I didn’t want it to feel like homework either.
Experienced gamers will recognize most of the mechanisms in Littoral Commander, such as action points to move units, a menu of available actions, special effects cards, and rolling handfuls of dice to resolve actions. I specifically selected them because they are common, familiar, and easy to understand. For instance, my game has only four core actions: 1) Move and/or Combat, 2) Move and/or Conceal, 3) Move and/or Resupply, and 4) Play a card. That’s it. I distilled tactical modern multi-domain warfare into four simple actions — but do not let that fool you into thinking Littoral Commander is a shallow game!
Let’s examine the central combat mechanism in which a unit fires a long-range missile at its target. In the game, a unit has a specified amount of supply for different types of combat. For instance, a unit with a Combat Value of 12 for missiles and an associated supply of 3 would roll a total of three dice, and each die that is 12 or below is a hit. A defending unit may use its defensive missiles to protect itself in a similar manner with each defensive success nullifying a successful hit, so if Nathalie rolls two successes for her strike, but Nick rolls one defensive success, then one of Nathalie’s attacks gets through and hits the target. Simple, right?
However, this simple process is a simplified application of salvo equations devised by Wayne P. Hughes in his seminal book, Fleet Tactics. Hughes’ salvo model is distilled in the game’s core engine where the attacker’s offensive power is subtracted by target’s defensive power, which is applied to the staying power of the target.
Likewise, the underlying combat value scoring system is based on the research of Trevor Depuy, a noted military operations researcher. Each weapon’s score was combined with the scores of other weapon types in the unit for an aggregated unit score, indicating the expected number of causalities that unit could inflict per unit of time. Throughout the design process, playtesting and subject matter expert consultation informed adjustments to the underlying assumptions to the combat calculations. For instance, when the salvo-size of six missiles was reduced to four to enable more nuanced actions, this created a ripple effect across unit Combat Values to supply allocations.
The game’s four maps — Okinawa, Taiwan, Luzon, and Straits of Malacca — are also a product of intense research and analysis. Each map is divided into 20 km hexes that are color-coded on a value scale from 1-5 (coded with numbers for color-blindness). Hexes with a value of 1 represent areas that are easy to move through, such as highways or flat terrain. In contrast, hexes with a value of 5 represent impassable terrain, often representing steep mountain ranges or dense jungle.
To score each hex, McKenzie Kramer, the team’s geographer, leveraged open-source, real-world geographic data processed in Esri ArcGIS combined with external expert consultation. Though highly generalized, each hex was classified using a repeatable, quantitative, and data-informed approach – factoring in elevation, slope, dominant landcover, major infrastructure quality, bathymetry, and more.
The Design Grind
Designing Littoral Commander has been a three-year process characterized by an unhealthy amount of caffeine and constant playtesting and feedback. The time from initial design to the first prototype was roughly six months. This initial prototype was mainly constructed in PowerPoint and laid the foundation for the core game system.
Over the following year, the game steadily matured both graphically and in terms of content through consistent playtesting with analysts, uniformed servicemembers, and hobby gamers. Physical playtesting was incredibly important to honing the social and collaborative dimension of the game. Meanwhile, virtual playtesting through VASSAL and Tabletop Simulator allowed the game design to benefit from a wide array of experts in the military and associated fields.
I leveraged a Google Form to collect playtesting feedback (252 responses) with pointed questions, which included playing experience to elements of the game they loved or hated. The feedback was usually helpful, occasionally painful, and ranged from “The game is pleasantly simple and very well designed” to “I do think the long-range fires take on a certain magical aspect as they’re too easy and too long-legged”. This whittling and honing process was critical in identifying holes in the system and exceptional edge cases, as well as re-examining core assumptions undercutting some of the design choices.
At one point or another, every designer has felt the irrational affection for a specific mechanism or idea in a game. However, merciless, objective editing is necessary – even if it means scrapping your cool little idea. Littoral Commander was no different. I binned or drastically simplified several ideas or concepts I was enamored with because they added too much complexity or provided minimal value. For instance, submarines are cartoonishly simplified in the game. Nevertheless, the design was better for it in the end.
The Desired Impact and Commercialization
Commercial wargaming titles are already a niche subset of the wider gaming community. To publish a commercial wargame for professional military education and hobby gamers…that was not an easy pitch for a lot of publishers to accept. Ultimately, The Dietz Foundation embraced my vision for Littoral Commander to remain a professional educational wargame – an accessible and fun, but serious game. I wanted Marines to be playing the game in the barracks, drinking beers and eating chips, debating the future of the Corps. I wanted enlisted and officer leaders to play Littoral Commander as part of their educational pipeline. I also wanted someone who never played wargames before to pick it off the shelf and play it. Whether the game can successfully straddle both worlds of commercial gaming and PME remains to be seen.
The early signs are promising with pre-orders and initial responses by the military community. Littoral Commander is already featured in the U.S. Marine Corps’ College of Enlisted Military Education as their official capstone wargame. Similarly, several Marine Corps units have been leveraging early versions of the game for unit-based education and training. The game has also been embraced by allies and partners overseas as a way to explore future combat. Although the aforementioned uses of the game do not translate to official endorsements, it is a special kind of joy for a designer to see their game being used as it was originally envisioned.
In the end, Littoral Commander is not your typical game night wargame; it is an educational tool that enables players to explore the future of warfare and the Marine Corps’ role in it and the wider Joint Force. While the game does not offer a comprehensive or definitive vision of future warfare, it provides an intellectual sandbox for players to engage with complex problems and devise their own solutions. The game mechanisms were designed to be intuitive and easy to learn, while also providing enough complexity to enable players to explore the nuances of modern warfare. My hope is that you will give it a chance and maybe it will teach you something new.
If you have specific questions about the game or the design process, leave a comment and I will endeavor to answer them.
About the author: Sebastian Bae is a research analyst and game designer at CNA’s Gaming & Integration program who works in wargaming, emerging technologies, the future of warfare, and strategy and doctrine for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches a graduate course on designing educational wargames.
Disclaimer: Littoral Commander is NOT a U.S. government product and NOT owned or funded by the U.S. Marine Corps or any other government entity. This design is the intellectual property of its designer. This work represents the views of the designer alone and does not reflect or represent the opinions of the U.S. government, U.S. Marine Corps, the CNA/Center for Naval Analyses, or any other affiliated organizations.