Lessons Learned from Running Operation East Wind
With the end of Operation East Wind we hope that others at some point choose to take up the call and provide a similar experience in the years to come. We figured we could be a service to those who choose this path in the future if we take the time to write up a list of lessons learned over the years of running Operation East Wind so that others may have a more peaceful path of learning than we did over the years. Remember, a smart person learns from their mistakes, a wise person learns from the mistakes of others as well.
First and foremost, have a vision of what you want and produce that vision exactly
Compromise is absolutely the enemy of an event like this. Determine what you want to do, define it in very exact terms, specify every single aspect of what you want the experience to be then produce precisely what you want. If you want it, someone else does too and that someone else has friends that likely want the same thing too. If you compromise, before too long, you are producing something that has compromised away all of the things which make it unique and important.
When we first talked about East Wind, when I said it would be nine days, people wanted to start with a weekend event. When I said 24 hours a day, people wanted to just do limited night stuff for a few hours each night. When I set the equipment requirements, people said they were too stringent and we should just do green vs tan. When I set the event in March, they said it was too early and we should run over a late spring weekend instead.
So, if I had compromised I would be running a weekend green vs tan game with lax uniform restrictions, on yet another hot-ass weekend full of fat kids with heat exhaustion. The world has plenty of those games already.
Set your goal, set your requirements, make your vision and to hell with everyone else's opinion, the ones that disagree would not come to your event anyhow.
To add - sometimes it is worth checking back on what you started with and see if you have deviated. Sometimes as your event goes from year to year - you make improvements based on your AARs. From time to time stop and see where you are and where you want to go - sometimes you hold on to something you initially thought was important that turns out to not really be needed to get the experience you really want.
Example - using the exactly correct WARPAC style tents instead of more readily available and supportable US tents that look VERY close to some WARPAC tents. While the correct tents were a nice to have - they did not make the event nor did using US tents take away from the event. In fact - they added to the event in lightening the logistic load to make it easier to concentrate on other parts that did add to the event.
Make your vision of the event public knowledge
Publicize what you are wanting to accomplish. Let the attendees understand what you are wanting to get out of the event. This allows them to participate in reaching the event goals.
Those that are of a similar mind (which is who you want there anyway) will likely take up the goals as their goals as well. You will be happier with the results and the attendees will take pride in being part of that accomplishment
Do not make it easy to attend
Getting numbers is never hard, figuring out what to do with the numbers you have is the true challenge. You are going to get some inexperienced attendees, some lazy attendees, some stupid attendees, and some annoying attendees. There is just no avoiding that.
Having at least some of those guys is survivable, but having the majority of your attendees be that way would be sheer suicide for an event. Set high standards and keep them there, they are your shield.
Write your rules to have an "intent" rather than just the rule itself
Rules lawyers are a constant nuisance in events. Write your rules with a clear intent and insist that the intent of the rule be followed. Quickly squash anyone who tries to "get around" rules with some clever ploy or another. Discussing rules at the event takes away from the immersion of what you are doing and adds additional layers of gameyness which just annoy everyone so when encountering rules lawyers at the event, simply state the intent of the rule and if they want to argue it, rule against them every single time till they get the point and STFU.
Do not ever make exceptions to the rules or requirements
The moment you make one exception you are opening yourself up to thousands of questions about every other rule and guideline you have. Develop a culture of "the rules are the rules" then stick to them. It will save you a lot of headaches down the road.
Do not focus on "trigger time"
If you put your game together well you do not need to try to compete with the shootem up games. It's easy for players to go get their bang bang fix on any given weekend. With a longer length event, you are far better off working to make sure that player can instead feel ramifications for their actions instead. For instance, when you do not spoon feed intel to leadership, they are forced to actually rely upon well executed recon meaning that if your attendees get out and find a real nugget of intel and get it back to HQ where they are able to make actionable gains based off of it, they will take a great deal more satisfaction from that than they would from any amount of spraying rounds at people. Aside from all of that, unless you are using real weapons with live ammo, the sad fact is no matter what your simulation platform is, it's shortcomings will mostly come to light when contact is initiated. Whether it is an enemy 120 meters away that cannot be hit with an airsoft/paintball system or real steel weapon systems ill adapted to blanks turning every fire fight into a jam clearance race, it's as often as not the "combat" that pulls people out of immersion and shows them that they are in a game. This is part of the game at games, its hardly noticeable at all, when you get into a simulation situation however it rapidly grows to be more of a limitation.
Do not allow under 18 attendees
For every one that manages to actually come, you will be bothered by a dozen with endless questions, goofy helicopter parents, and non-stop logistical and legal hassles. Save yourself the nuisance.
Focus on providing the experience, not equipment
Do not check out gear to attendees, do not invest in excessive infrastructure. Once you become successful, your attendees will be more than willing to step up to the plate and fill in any voids you have. While a lot of kit is fun it quickly becomes burdensome to maintain, inventory, clean and even just store and transport to the game. In addition, as you get more and more of it, it becomes harder and harder for your attendees to actually make use of it.
The last East Wind even saw us sell off nearly all of the gear we previously used to check out. We found that as a result it was getting a lot more use in the field since it was in the hands of the individual troops who were keen to put it to use.
This also points back to the first point of producing your vision - do not load yourself down with excess infrastructure, unless your vision is to spend ALL of your time dealing with its transport and maintenance. It quickly goes from adding to the experience into taking away from it - both for yourself and for your attendees.
Do not provide food
Dealing with meals for a large group takes a lot of time, effort and money. Spare yourself the bullshit and just make people deal with meals themselves. Aside from the logistical and cost issues, you also end up with your pace of operations to some degree being dictated by mealtimes which is a huge PITA. Again, we implemented this plan at the last East Wind event and found that while the overall food quality was obviously not as good, the players were fairly happy with it anyhow since, again, they had a personal investment in it's creation. Just as importantly, no missions were interfered with by any mealtime logistics... Big improve!
Do not recruit, do not sell
Be up front about what you are providing, answer questions, be friendly but do not, under any circumstances, go doing the door to door vacuum cleaner salesman thing. The more you sell, the more people feel like they have room to deal and the more dumb asses you end up talking to who want to negotiate their vision into your event.
Do not be afraid to tell people not to come
I had more than a few "fans" on the internet who used to get pissed about the fact that when answering questions I tended to default to telling people who were clearly not cut out to be outdoors that they should simply not attend East Wind.
The fact is, when you get people into an environment where they are ill suited to succeed, they will likely not only fail, they will also not enjoy the process of failing. Furthermore they will make a nuisance out of themselves in the process that negatively impacts everyone else's experience.
Does this mean that everyone must be an uber ninja? Of course not, you'll know who will adapt and succeed and who will fall flat on their face and cry like a three year old. When you see the screaming, crying, toddler types (usually the ones who think they are bad asses already) don't be afraid to tell it like it is. The right ones will see what you are saying and come with the correct attitude. The wrong ones will think you are a jerk and stay away. Either way, you win.
Do not take the "bad asses" angle
Never, ever, ever, ever, let anyone go the "are you tough enough" route when talking about your event. If anyone starts doing so, stamp it out immediately.
Not only does that drive away exactly the quiet, competent types that will actually succeed, it draws in the overconfident and incompetent types that are almost certain to fail. Once you get past the timeline where people can reasonably just stay up for the entire event, you are into a thinking game more than a tough guy game. Make sure that you bill your event that way.
Do not concern yourself with teams
Teams are a group of people who all compromise to work together. In normal events, this is fairly easy to do since there is not significant external pressure to deal with but once you start getting into extended schedules, gear requirements, and travel logistics the team system rapidly hits it's limitations. What generally ends up happening is that you end up with an entire group looking at the event and one by one they drop off the radar till eventually "the team" instead decides to do another event since not everyone could come. Focus instead on the individuals within the group who seem likely to succeed in the environment you are creating and get them to come individually.
Avoid administrative presence
When you are bringing people into an environment, you want them to be able to adapt to it and focus on the exact environment you have created. Adding administrative or obviously "game" presence into that situation takes people out of the moment and serves as a reminder that they are in a simulation which then encourages them to treat it as a game or simulation instead of treating as if it was real. This robs the attendees of a portion of the experience and adds additional hassles to the staff. What we found worked best for us at East Wind was to simply have the two "admins" basically serve as unit commanders then have our White Cell serve as an off site "higher" who then passed general unit orders down. This allowed us to easily guide the event the direction it needed to go without there being an obvious Administrative presence.
You can hide some administrative tasks by embedding them in the paperwork that real armies actually do, day to day. For example, you need waivers and other paperwork to be gathered on the field? Have them gathered up as part of the process of reporting for duty when they arrive at their combat command. This also introduces the players to the fact there is procedure, control, and a chain of command, not just a bunch of guys out running around shooting each other.
Always do AARs
Do After Action Reports for missions, do AARs for events, do AARs for your equipment, do AARs for your AARs if you have to. Skipping this vital step means that you are skipping the opportunity to learn from both your mistakes as well as your successes. All too often, when we would take a shortcut we would find ourselves getting stung by the same problem a second time when we could have easily avoided it.
Identify gaps in the capabilities of your attendees and provide training prior to the event
You want your attendees to succeed, they want to succeed, at the same time, you do not want to put together an easy event since that's not what people are coming for. Look at who is coming, look at their levels of preparedness, their experience, their skill sets and seek to bolster their skills and confidence as much as possible prior to the event. For East Wind, we initially knew that the simple fact that we were running in the late winter meant that a lot of folks would be outside their comfort zone weather wise so we made it a point to run training events all throughout the winters leading up to each event in order to get our guys as much mid winter field time as possible. We obviously did not get everybody but the ones we did get were able to disseminate their lessons learned among the rest of the group quite effectively.
Make your "rear area" tactical but not overtly attackable
Everyone wants to be the commando bad ass who sneaks into the enemy's camp and slits the general's throat but nobody wants to be the guys who have to guard the rear areas the entire time.
The truth is that until you get to well over 100 attendees per side, you literally do not have enough troops to provide even a veneer of security over your rear areas. Even if all you did the entire event is near security patrols and sentry operations you cannot cover the base are.
Nobody wants to deal with that crap. Spare yourself the bullshit and creatively use phase lines and LOAs to remove the burden of guarding the porta-johns.
Do not get caught up in "the game"
Remember that you are running a simulation. Focus on what you are simulating not the game or the rules. Do not let anyone else head down the game path either. If you end up with a rules lawyer trying to game the system, stamp it out immediately preferably in a way that punishes said rules lawyer and discourages others from following his example. If you see people trying to play the boundaries, get with the admins on the opposite side of the event and make sure that they alter the boundaries or get their troops in a different way, Stay on it and make sure that everyone knows that it pays to stay in the event working with the world you are providing them rather than treating the simulation as a game to be won or lost.
Never have winners or losers
This is not the same as saying that everybody wins or that you are all winners. What we mean is that war is a shitty place and at the ground level there are not winners, only losers. Don't do points, don't do big battles to settle the fight, don't track progress, none of that shit.
Focus instead on the simulation and the missions, get the quality there and people will be able to figure out for themselves how they did as an individual, a fire team and a squad. If you go to execute a recon mission and you completely screw it up, you do not need points to tell you that you screwed up. If your ambush netted four prisoners and tons of useful intel than you don't need points to tell you that you did well.
In the end, everyone who comes to a long duration event is really only competing with themselves, they will know the score and will not need a scoreboard to show them.