In 2030, Beijing reaches a fatal decision: reunification with Taiwan at any cost. Cyber ​​attacks plunge the island into darkness, chaos and fear. A barrage of missiles penetrates Taiwan’s defenses, destroying military bases and communications infrastructure. At sea, the Chinese navy has surrounded the country with hundreds of landing craft speeding across the Taiwan Strait. As US warships approach, they are overwhelmed by missiles, torpedoes and drones. Videos of Chinese blitzes and sinking US ships spread across the internet. Frustrated, Taiwan refused to take up arms against Chinese forces invading its shores.

What most people imagine when they think of military war games—scenes from the bowels of the Pentagon, units fighting digitally on electronic maps, commanders pondering their next move in a fast-moving crisis. Victory in simulation, so the popular imagination, shows how to win a real-life conflict. On the other hand, defeat in a war game is an acknowledgment that any real struggle will be lost.

Contrary to popular belief, however, that’s not how war games work. Rarely is a war game designed to predict the future or develop a single definitive strategy. Instead, a war game helps military planners and analysts explore and understand a complex problem regardless of the outcome. Win or lose, the purpose is not to dictate strategy for the US military but to help it understand the capabilities it has, what it can already do, and what it needs.

In 2030, Beijing reaches a fatal decision: reunification with Taiwan at any cost. Cyber ​​attacks plunge the island into darkness, chaos and fear. A barrage of missiles penetrates Taiwan’s defenses, destroying military bases and communications infrastructure. At sea, the Chinese navy has surrounded the country with hundreds of landing craft speeding across the Taiwan Strait. As US warships approach, they are overwhelmed by missiles, torpedoes and drones. Videos of Chinese blitzes and sinking US ships spread across the internet. Frustrated, Taiwan refused to take up arms against Chinese forces invading its shores.

What most people imagine when they think of military war games—scenes from the bowels of the Pentagon, units fighting digitally on electronic maps, commanders pondering their next move in a fast-moving crisis. Victory in simulation, so the popular imagination, shows how to win a real-life conflict. On the other hand, defeat in a war game is an acknowledgment that any real struggle will be lost.

Contrary to popular belief, however, that’s not how war games work. Rarely is a war game designed to predict the future or develop a single definitive strategy. Instead, a war game helps military planners and analysts explore and understand a complex problem regardless of the outcome. Win or lose, the purpose is not to dictate strategy for the US military but to help it understand the capabilities it has, what it can already do, and what it needs.

Be it Taiwan or any other potential conflict, scenario is rarely central to the war games we at CNA create for the US Department of Defense. Rather, war games are about understanding how the US military can build resilience, what technology gaps can bridge its forces, how an adversary’s capabilities can evolve in response to US capabilities, and how all of this can affect what Washington should invest today. Basically, war games try to find and distill the fundamental nature of the problem itself – which rarely leads to a definitive scenario or solution.

In fact, it is impossible to use war games to formulate a clear strategy. Done right, war games are an admirable method of providing a brief and limited glimpse of a possible future—a single future among a multiplicity of possibilities. On the other hand, trying to simulate victory in a war game means trying to align the future decisions of both sides in a complex conflict with the conditions played out during the game. Obviously, these decisions are numerous and mostly beyond one’s control.

Trying to avoid the failures identified in war games is a richer way to explore. Did the US side fail due to a lack of logistics? Was his demise due to a missing ability—or a mistaken assumption about the enemy? War games can be designed to focus on only one aspect of the conflict, such as the deployment of the US Navy at the start of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, and to emphasize that aspect to the breaking point. Finding situations where the US side fails is invaluable, as it creates opportunities to address weaknesses. On the other hand, success makes it very difficult to know where to invest and even more difficult to convince anyone that it is worth investing. Failure identifies critical areas that need attention, and war game narratives highlight the cost of neglect. Through many iterations, a war game can steadily clarify the way forward.

In 2030, Beijing reaches a fatal decision: reunification with Taiwan at any cost. Cyber ​​attacks plunge the island into darkness, chaos and fear. A barrage of missiles penetrates Taiwan’s defenses, destroying military bases and communications infrastructure. At sea, the Chinese navy has surrounded the country with hundreds of landing craft speeding across the Taiwan Strait. US warships provide critical missile defense to threatened US regional bases. Long-range bombers and guided missiles destroy landing craft approaching Taiwan, giving the country a brief window to defend itself and gather strength against the remaining Chinese forces reaching its shores.

For a war game to be useful, it is largely irrelevant which potential conflict is played. The game may use the Chinese invasion of Taiwan as a backdrop—but only as a use case for investigating military forces. The real takeaway is not about winning or losing a particular struggle, but about what’s come up along the way. Why did prevention fail in the situation? What enemy capability limited the United States’ ability to project power? A careful analysis of questions like these helps advance the US military and increase its tactical, operational, and strategic proficiency. It forces rigorous examinations of information exchange, command and control, processes and procedures, and even organizational structures. None of this is really about the Taiwan conflict. But if the United States goes to war—on Taiwan, the Baltic states, or any other country—the answers to these questions will help it succeed.

In the words of US Air Force General John Hyten, the US side “failed” in the 2020 war games that included a Chinese attack on Taiwan. (The exact circumstances remain classified.) But the result was not the disaster the press made it out to be. Wargame failure is a normal feature, not a bug. Hyten’s criticism proved the game a success. “[W]We have to make sure that we fail and that we fail fast, and that we learn from our failures and move forward quickly,” he added in the same speech. When military leaders are unwilling to accept failure, they drive the entire defense department into stagnation and safe bets, opening a window of opportunity for adversaries. War games are a safe environment to fail fast and learn to succeed.

In 2030, Beijing reaches a fatal decision: reunification with Taiwan at any cost. Cyber ​​attacks plunge the island into darkness, chaos and fear. Equipped with US capabilities, Taiwan’s defenses intercepted the initial wave of Chinese missiles. At sea, China’s navy is attacked by unmanned submarines. As hundreds of landing craft speed across the Taiwan Strait unharmed, this invisible force destroys them. US warships in successive weeks Escort a steady stream of reinforcements. Supported by sensors from the US Marines and Special Forces, sophisticated missiles launched by long-range bombers sink the rest of the fleet approaching the island. Taiwan begins to repair its infrastructure, consolidate its reserves and wait for a long time.

The United States can certainly learn from winning war games, but the lessons are often narrow. What worked in a single war game had limited utility—it made specific decisions against a specific opponent using a specific set of game rules that may or may not accurately reflect the world. On the other hand, a game does not have to be a perfect simulation to fail. We often hear complaints from players that our wargame rules make the enemy “10 feet tall”. But it is better to stress the American military too much and not stress the American military enough than to give the enemy too little credit. An all-out emphasis on the capabilities of the U.S. military allows analysts and researchers to identify vulnerabilities and what is needed to address them.

In 2030, Beijing reaches a fatal decision: reunification with Taiwan at any cost. Cyber ​​attacks plunge Chinese coastal military ports into darkness, chaos and fear. Hundreds of landing craft, unable to load at ports, await further orders. Most Chinese missiles targeting Taiwanese military installations are intercepted by defensive batteries. At sea, the Chinese Navy is vulnerable to advanced mobile mines and hypersonic missiles. US warships lead regional allies and partners in shuttling critical munitions, supplies and capabilities to the island. Although damaged, Taiwan’s infrastructure manages to rapidly move troops and supplies into defensive positions, preparing the nation to repel the next wave.

There are many reasons why none of these narratives are fulfilled. It only takes one decision to change the entire story. And in any war game—not to mention a real-life conflict—there are countless decisions. Just as war games are not about winning or losing, they are also not strictly determined by the so-called road to war, the initial conditions that trigger the game’s conflict. Instead, the dynamic heart of a wargame is the way players leverage and adapt existing military doctrine, tactics, and capabilities—and apply them to the problems they face. Did predictable actions lead to expected results? Are there moments of insight or flashes of inspiration when players are improved? New decisions lead to new experiences, and new experiences can lead to different and better outcomes.

So, in war games, don’t pay attention to who wins or who loses. War-gaming is about the process, not the outcome — and analyzing that process will allow the U.S. military to turn defeat into victory.

In 2030, Beijing reaches a fatal decision: reunification with Taiwan at any cost. The rest of the story? It depends on you.