Web Content Display Web Content Display


The Army Lawyer


Team Building Through Gaming



  PDF Version
(Credit: LTC Courie)

Web Content Display Web Content Display

“Head north.”

“Torpedo ready.”


“Torpedo launched. Impact in H-2.”

“Direct hit, two damaged.”

Cheers arise from one side of the conference table.

This is not Navy training taking place aboard a U.S. Navy submarine at sea or on base in a simulated conning tower. Instead, this is a group of U.S. Army judge advocates (JAs) and paralegals developing teamwork and leadership skills, as well as having fun, in their office law library. They are playing the tabletop game “Captain Sonar.”

Captain Sonar is an innovative, award-winning, two-team game, centered on two submarines hunting each other. There is no game board, per se, because the location and status of each submarine is hidden from the opposing team. There are two modes of play: turn-based and real-time. In the turn-based version, each team takes turns moving their submarine on a hidden map board, allowing all players to focus on the action and giving the captain and crew time to confer on strategy. In real-time play, the teams move as fast as the captain can call out movements and the crew members can react—a truly chaotic and exciting play.1

As designed, each team is composed of four players: the captain, the first officer, the radio operator, and the engineer, each with clearly defined roles. Each team sits across the table from the other team with a large screen blocking the view of the opposing player sheets (that is, all information and moves by each submarine are hidden from the opposing team). The captain directs the submarine on a map, using a dry-erase marker to plot their course point-by-point, and the captain must announce loudly (for all playing to hear) the direction of each move. The submarine cannot reverse course, cross its own path, or cross one of the islands on the map. The first mate assists the captain by “powering up” systems on the submarine with each movement; the systems include sonar and drones, used to locate the opposing submarine, and torpedoes and mines, used of course to destroy the opposing submarine. The third member of the team, the engineer, must also “break down” a system with each move, depending on the direction of the move. There are various methods to repair the submarine systems or minimize/mitigate breakdowns.2 Finally, the most valuable and challenged crew member is the radio operator. The radio operator tries to find the opposing submarine’s position by listening to the opponent’s moves and plotting those movements on a map.

The game only superficially resembles actual submarine tactics, and players should not expect to gain any understanding of naval tactics or replicate actual naval submarine combat. Instead, Captain Sonar players develop teamwork and leadership skills. They also learn to think, communicate, learn, and adapt to an unfamiliar system.

While the game appears complicated, the complexity and novelty of the system support the training goals. The gameplay mechanics are not nearly as important as the interplay among team members. Benefits of playing Captain Sonar include effective communication, clear intent, an understanding of the captain’s intent, situational awareness, and also understanding and balancing competing and opposing priorities.

Leaders can use games, such as Captain Sonar, to develop teamwork, build esprit de corps, and teach Soldiers to thrive in ambiguity and chaos. These training objectives are often difficult to achieve in an office environment. The Army already has ample training methods to meet these training objectives while going through Army schooling or when granted training days to go to an obstacle course, Leaders Reaction Course, or other established Army team building exercise; however, the reality is most JAs and paralegals will spend the vast majority of their garrison time in an office, and thus they may not have the ready opportunities to develop these goals outside of the normal course of daily work.

Using a tabletop game and a small amount of prior planning (for the first iteration), Soldiers in an Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (OSJA) can enjoy the benefit of this training in the office, in just one or two hours per session.

Gaming as Teaching

Gaming can be an excellent method of teaching a variety of skills. In the military, most people associate gaming with wargaming. In Army doctrine, “wargaming” is Step 5 of the Army Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP) and allows the staff to test and refine various courses of action before presenting them to the commander for a final decision.3 More colloquially, wargaming is a sub-genre of tabletop board gaming that generally focuses on historical military operations, recreating tactical battles or operations using counters representing military forces and played on a map game board. In this context, wargaming can serve as interpretive tools for military historians,4 through the representation of the battlefield on a map and the opposing forces as units in the game. These wargames allow historians to posit and test counterfactuals, albeit within the framework of the wargame simulation they use to model these counterfactuals.5 Wargames can be an excellent training method, are often used in military education,6 and have been used by policymakers to better understand U.S. military capabilities.7

While MDMP wargaming and casual board game wargaming are military-focused, Captain Sonar does not simulate or recreate historical battles or teach the players military strategy. It is more like Hasbro’s Battleship meets The Hunt for Red October.8 Although it does not accurately replicate military conflict, Captain Sonar does help its players learn to work together as a team.

Team Building9 Fundamentals

Army team building enables groups to accomplish a mission or perform a collective task. In Captain Sonar, the collective task is locating and sinking the opposing submarine (while also preventing the same from happening to your submarine). That is, the team’s mission is to locate and destroy the enemy submarine. To do this, each crewmember must function as a member of the team.

“Army organizations rely on effective teams to complete tasks, achieve objectives, and accomplish missions.”10 According to Army Techniques Publication 6-22.6, Army Team Building, the characteristics of effective teams are:

  • Trust each other and predict what each will do.
  • Work together to accomplish the mission.
  • Execute tasks thoroughly and quickly.
  • Meet and exceed the standard.
  • Adapt to demanding challenges.
  • Learn from experiences and develop pride in accomplishments.11

Trust Each Other and Predict What Each Will Do

Each crewmember in Captain Sonar has a specific job. For three of the crew (the captain, the first mate, and the engineer), their actions and requirements directly link to the decisions that the captain makes. At times, the competing requirements of avoiding land, closing with the enemy submarine, and moving in a certain direction to repair systems (or not break the key systems) require the captain to trust the information he receives from his crewmembers, and they have to trust the captain’s decisions—and try to predict their team’s requirements over the next few turns.

Work Together to Accomplish the Mission

Although this may sound trite, Captain Sonar is truly a team game. Each of the four crewmembers must do their job, do their job well, and communicate with the captain.

The radio operator must diligently record each move of the opposing submarine and communicate continually with the captain about the potential locations of the enemy submarine. The first officer must ensure that he is powering up the correct weapon or system based on the current situation and must work with the radio operator, captain, and engineer to make these determinations. For example, if the first officer is powering up a torpedo to launch at the enemy submarine, but the radio operator does not know where the enemy submarine is, then the first officer is wasting time and not working with the team; instead, the first officer should be powering up a detection system (sonar or drone). Meanwhile, the engineer has to manage the breakdowns and repairs of the systems, which happen with every move of the submarine. The engineer has to work with the captain to ensure that the engineer can forecast and plan for the upcoming breakdowns while also working with the other crew to understand which of the systems to repair and by when.

Then finally, the captain must ensure that all of the crew understand the situation and the priority of the submarine (locate the enemy, close with and destroy the enemy, evade the enemy to buy time, etc.). If all of the crew understand the current and future needs and plans of the captain, then they can better plan and advise their actions for each turn.

Execute Tasks Thoroughly and Quickly

This principle applies most during the real-time version of Captain Sonar. During real-time Captain Sonar games, the team that moves quickly and correctly (that is, they make good moves faster) will be more successful. They will be able to power up their systems, repair their breakdowns, and close with the enemy faster. A well-performing crew, one that understands their mission and the captain’s plan (intent), will execute its tasks quickly.

Adapt to Demanding Challenges

While it may be just a game and not truly “demanding” in the same way that many Army tasks are demanding, two teams of peers and friends in a head-to-head competition get their competitive juices flowing. A little friendly competition, perhaps sweetened by some small prizes (Snickers bars or something else fun), creates its own challenge.

As for adapting, the unique (and likely unfamiliar) structure and mechanics of Captain Sonar forces the players to adapt to the unfamiliar challenges of the game.

(Credit: istockphoto.com/Feodora Chiosea)

Learn from Experiences and Develop Pride in Accomplishments

Because the players are likely unfamiliar with Captain Sonar, or even the basic concepts and mechanics of this game, much of the players’ learning will come from their experiences. The training plan is designed so that the players do not have access to the full rulebook; instead, they learn by doing, not by reading—experiential learning.12

Adaptive and Agile Leaders

The premise of Army mission command doctrine is the requirement that we develop “agile and adaptive leaders.”13 Army leaders must learn to operate in ambiguous environments without clear guidance from above.

Most JA training is focused on garrison legal operations, such as military justice. A JA must be ready, however, to deploy quickly and to advise commanders on a multitude of legal issues against near-peer adversaries. Modern hybrid warfare may involve cyber operations and space operations on a continuum of conflict between peace and war.14 “Units and individuals cannot train on every task under every possible condition . . . . They improve their ability to adapt through exposure to—and the intuition gained from—multiple, complex, and unexpected situations in challenging, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable conditions.”15

Encouraging a group of Army lawyers and paralegals who are unfamiliar with Captain Sonar (unless and until they read this article!), to play this game can help mentally prepare them to function in ambiguity in an increasingly complex world. The answers to the problem facing them while playing Captain Sonar (how to work together as a team to locate and destroy the opposing submarine) are not found in the Manual for Courts-Martial, case law, or an Army regulation. Just as young JAs had to be mentally agile and adaptive when first developing rule of law lines of effort in Iraq, the answers to tomorrow’s ambiguous legal challenges may be absent in existing legal guidance. Adaptive and agile leaders must prepare to craft and discover their own answers.

How We Did It

Here is how we used Captain Sonar in our office: we split the training audience into two teams of four, deliberately mixing players from different sections to enable and encourage people to work with those whom they do not normally see every day. Of course, splitting into teams based on sections or other groups that do normally work together can help forge internal teamwork.

We also deliberately placed players of all ranks on each team, then assigned the junior member of each team as the captain. A few days before the planned event, we informed each of the captains who was on their crew and gave them a player aid16 that explained the basic rules and gameplay. We did not give them the rulebook, although both captains, on their own initiative, looked up how-to-play videos on YouTube. Then, it was up to each captain to assign roles to their crew, based on their limited knowledge of the game, and explain to each of their crewmembers their duties and responsibilities.

On game day, the two teams sat opposite each other at the office conference table with dividers preventing them from viewing the other team’s map and status indicators. The game started slowly as the captains struggled to explain their crews’ duties and the crewmembers struggled to understand their actions. As they learned to maneuver the submarine, power up their weapons systems, and plot the opposing submarine’s movements, gameplay and understanding slowly increased. Then each team began to understand the role of all of the other crew and began working together for specific ends, synchronizing their efforts. Once this happened, they gained an understanding of the tactics in the game, and gameplay and understanding increased quickly. The crews, each now operating together as a team, became very involved and excited about their competition. They enthusiastically tried to locate the opposing submarine and power up their weapons, while navigating their own submarine. Big moments—the location of the other submarine, the firing of a weapon, a successful hit—were greeted with raised voices and players on the edges of their chairs. Cheers from the winning team and groans from the losing team sounded when the opposing submarine sunk.

Our office has played the game multiple times, using Captain Sonar as a team building activity when new personnel join the office. Players look forward to Captain Sonar afternoons and have asked when we are playing again.


Team building and leadership are key to Army service. However, the normal battle rhythm of a garrison Army OSJA rarely presents opportunities to deliberate develop these attributes. While the Army does offer episodic opportunities for team building, such as Leaders Reaction Courses, these often require advance scheduling and planning and are difficult for an office to participate in while also being responsive to the daily mission of the command. Thus, leaders must look to unconventional means to build teams and develop leaders.

The game Captain Sonar offers an unconventional way to build teamwork and camaraderie in your office. The players learn how to work toward a common objective, which—adding in a bit of healthy competition—increases team building while also offering challenging problems, thus helping build their mental agility. Your office will end up closer as a team, with stronger, more agile and adaptive leaders. And, just as importantly, your office does this while having fun. TAL


LTC Courie is the Staff Judge Advocate at U.S. Army Training Center and Fort Jackson, South Carolina.


1. I do not discuss the gameplay details in this article because part of the fun, and challenge, of this game is the “experientia learning” of figuring it out. See infra note 12. One of the training goals of Captain Sonar is for the players to learn to operate in ambiguity, without a full understanding of the gameplay when they start. However, for those interested in a better overview of the actual gameplay without reading the rulebook, I recommend viewing the following tutorial video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcf3SpHX7Po. For an extended gameplay example, view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMFi59xINEA.

2. This is the most complicated part of the game, one that must be played to be fully understood. Suffice it to say that you may need to move one direction to avoid an island or the edge of the map, move another direction to try to repair a key system, while also accounting for the location of the enemy submarine. That is, the captain must make tough, informed choices about the submarine’s priorities.

3. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Field Manual 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations ch. 9 (May 2014).

4. Robert M. Cittino, Lessons from the Hexagon, Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming 440 (2016).

5. Id. at 452-53.

6. Some of the most valuable wargames for military education include the “Kriegspiel,” a double-blind refereed game sometimes used to recreate Napoleonic-era campaigns. In Kriegspiel, players play an individual leader in the campaign—the overall Army leaders, a corps commander, a division commander, etc.—and issue written orders to their subordinates, and situation reports to their superiors, through the referee. The referee then holds the orders and only delivers them after the requisite time delay for horse-born couriers has elapsed. The intelligence picture is incomplete and delayed, just as it was in early 19th-century warfare.

Another excellent pedagogic form of wargaming is the matrix game. Matrix games are refereed/facilitated games in which the players roleplay as different factions (countries, non-government organizations, etc.), in which the “players propose actions, weigh arguments and counter-arguments,” and attempt to replicate geopolitical actions. Colonel Jerry Hall & Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Chretien, Matrix Games at the U.S. Army War College, https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/matrix-games-at-the-us-army-war-college/. Readers can also visit https://paxsims.wordpress.com/tag/matrix-games/ for a list of a variety of matrix games, including “On Thin Ice: A Matrix Game on the Future of the Arctic,” “Trouble in Paradise: A Micronesia Matrix Game,” and “Belt and Road: A Matrix Game of China’s Global Trade and Infrastructure Project.”

7. Benjamin Jensen, Welcome to Fight Club: Wargaming the Future, War On The Rocks (Jan. 4, 2019), https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/welcome-to-fight-club-wargaming-the-future/.

8. Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October (1984).

9. While Captain Sonar helps players bond, if you would rather bring out the worst in everyone and tear apart your team, play Diplomacy instead (unofficial tagline: “Destroying Friendships Since 1959”), https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/483/diplomacy.

10. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Army Techniques Publication 6-22.6, Army Team Building iv (Oct. 2015).

11. Id.

12. Kendra Cherry, The Experiential Learning Theory of David Kolb, VerywellMind (July 27, 2019), https://www.verywellmind.com/experiential-learning-2795154.

13. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development para. 1-15 (June 2015).

14. Training and Doctrine Command, PAM 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 vi (6 Dec. 2018).

15. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Reference Pub. 7.0, Training Units and Developing Leaders 2-25 (Aug. 2012).

16. Available on Boardgamegeek.com.