What would happen if Russia invaded Finland? I went to a giant war game in London to find out

Bush House in London is a narrow, imposing building that was constructed about a century ago from rugged limestone, which helped it survive a nearby missile strike during the second world war. It’s the sort of place you might choose to take shelter at the outset of a third world war and, fittingly, it is where dozens of Nato employees, as well as representatives of various global militaries, have gathered on a sunny summer afternoon to simulate the end of everything. In two vast top-floor conference rooms, an ambitious game – a war game, they call it – has been devised by academics from the department of war studies at King’s College London. Dr David Banks, the university’s war-gaming specialist, has invited me along to watch an imaginary conflict break out.

At 10am Banks, 44, who has silvery grey hair and a suit to match, takes to the stage in one of the conference rooms to address the assembled players. Some have been sent by their bosses as a training exercise; others are volunteers, here out of curiosity. They range from suited military-industrial types to soldiers in uniform; scruffy programmers to scruffier lecturers; women and men in their late 20s and 30s to greybeards carrying their coffee cups as though someone’s about to snatch them away. War-gaming appeals to all sorts of different people in different fields for different reasons, according to Banks. Politicians, ambassadors and their aides sometimes play these daylong games to “internalise lessons”. They might want to get better at reading diplomatic signals or making strategic decisions under pressure. Meanwhile generals, liaisons or others in the military sphere might enrol for bigger-picture reasons: to chance upon “surprising decisions, strategies or system dynamics” in a simulated conflict that might later be helpful in a real conflict.

Possibly one or two are here for the childish fun. War-gaming generally involves playing turn-based games with cards and maps, accumulating tokens and trying not to feel too silly while saying things such as, “Action that!” and, “What’s the combat readiness of the northern fleet?” At least three-quarters of the people assembled here are men. I hear North American accents, Scandinavian, eastern European. Most people have asked not to be named in this story, but I’m allowed to hover where I like, making notes. One Dutch guy wearing a colourful checked sports jacket is already complaining that there’s nowhere to smoke during breaks. One Italian dude, a ripped, thick-necked former marine, has crammed himself inside a suit for the day. His colleague from the Italian military has made a war-gaming faux pas by showing up with authentic stars on his shoulder. Not cool. War games are most useful and most enjoyable, I’m told, when there are no visible signs of rank – when real-world hierarchies are flattened and randomised by the fictional roles people are assigned at the start of the day.

* * *

It is 10am. Banks asks everyone present to imagine they are on the threshold of geopolitical catastrophe, somewhere a little beyond, though not that far beyond, our current perilous state. He fleshes out a scenario. Prolonged and humbling conflict in Ukraine as well as Finland’s recent accession to Nato has tested Russian pride to breaking point. Worsening matters, Nato has decided to press its advantage in the region by staging a military exercise on the Finnish-Russian border. China, Iran and India have made it plain: they’re not impressed by Nato. The Swedes are jangly, too. Spy planes, satellites and troop carriers are in play. A few wrong moves and all this posturing and provocation could ignite into something far worse. It is up to the players assembled in Bush House to try to war-game us back from the brink.

Now Banks moves among the crowd, handing out jobs like sweets. During this phase of a game, a real-life general might get a tap on the shoulder and tumble to become a low-level functionary for the first time in decades. A career shit-eater might get to feed somebody else the shit. (Maybe the general.) Anyone – a data specialist, a science nerd, an archive-dwelling academic – might find themselves near-omnipotent for the day. With a pointed finger, Banks elevates four random people to play as Russian high command. In a corner of one of the conference rooms, put aside for their exclusive use, the four newly minted Russians are told they can organise themselves and their decision-making however they want. “If you want to be equals here, that’s fine,” says one of Banks’s PhD students. “Or if you want to appoint a dictator, that’s fine, too.”

The four look at each other as if to say: a dictator, ridiculous! Of course, they decide to collaborate. There’s a physicist from California who has a long beard and an even longer braided ponytail. I’ll call him Tim. He sits next to a spectacled, serious-minded European who in the real world works for Nato’s operations department. I’ll call him Matteo. Across the table there’s a mild-mannered lecturer from Hungary who wears a purple sweater. I’ll call him Zlatan. Making up the group is a suited British woman, another Nato employee, who works in analysis. I’ll call her Amy. As the game begins, Tim, Matteo, Zlatan and Amy collaborate well, cordial in their strategic discussions if not always their strategy.

Presented with a range of possible opening moves, Russian high command decide to prioritise the destabilisation of Finland. But how? Decisions are debated and stress-tested before an irreversible commitment is made. Should their imaginary Russia go hard after its objectives? Or should it be more oblique, Putin-esque, harder for outsiders and enemies to read? Tim the bearded physicist is already wondering about sending warships into the Baltic. As an opening gambit, I take this to be the equivalent of starting an argument with the c-word or an arm-wrestle with a chokeslam. But Tim’s one of the four in charge and that’s why everyone has come here today: to find out who they are, as much as what they might do in a highly stressful, highly consequential scenario.

The four Russian commanders are standing over their maps now. They dismiss visiting underlings with little waves of the hand

Purple-jumpered lecturer Zlatan seems a sweetheart. After Tim has spoken he suggests something less belligerent – maybe a few extra passes over Finland in a spy plane? Matteo, already emerging as a first-do-no-harm type, adjusts his spectacles and wonders whether even this level of aggression is too much. Maybe a bit of email phishing in the region? The suited analyst, Amy, sides with Tim. “I’m thinking we escalate early. We provoke them. It’s what the real Russia would do.” The others nod through her suggestion. After an hour of play, Amy has emerged as a leader of sorts.

Tim the physicist, already on a second bottle of Coke, seems to be hankering for a role as her enforcer. There’s a balcony just off the Bush House conference room. Noting that it’s eight floors to the tarmac below, Tim makes the first of many, many jokes about the possible use of this balcony for intimidating subordinates. There are loads of subordinates. To explain: while these four make the big calls in one conference room, dozens of other players have been randomly assigned roles in the lower rungs of Russia’s military machine. Half of the 100 attendees were selected by Banks to play as Russians and half were selected to play as Nato people. From 11am onwards, subordinates begin to walk in from their other conference room, bringing updates about their successes or struggles in related mini-games.

An attache from cybersecurity comes in, then one from diplomacy, another from info ops. “Comrade,” Tim calls them. Everyone is taking the game more seriously now. Banks had warned me it always takes an hour of awkwardness for everybody to settle in and submit to their roles. The four Russian commanders are standing over their maps now. They dismiss visiting underlings with little waves of the hand.

* * *

It’s lunchtime. The players are taking a break. Out on the balcony I speak with a woman called Catherine. She’s eating a plum and enjoying the view over London. A few hours ago, she was picked by Banks to play as one of the Nato commanders. In her day job she’s a lower-ranked employee of that same organisation, a middle-ranking staff officer in a department called experimentation design, which studies and anticipates possible future developments in international conflict. I’ve been admiring her leadership skills all morning. She’s a sort of wartime Churchill mixed with peak Angela Merkel, imperturbable.

“War-gaming is about preparing for the future,” Catherine says. “How do you make the best of a bad set of options? How do you navigate a space that isn’t black and white, where the view of the decision-maker is blurred?” Catherine has worked in fields related to war-gaming for some time and, along with Banks, she helped me understand some of its history.

For centuries, people have used games to anticipate the future of war and to prepare for it. There was a 16th-century card game, or kartenspiel, that was used to teach basic military principles to the courtiers of Charles V, explains the academic Roger Mason in his 2018 essay Wargaming: Its History and Future. A dice game played in early 19th-century Bohemia simulated the management and movement of a large body of troops; another, played by Prussians of the era, involved the submission of written military orders to a neutral umpire. During the first world war, leaders in Britain, Germany and Russia used war games to consider new problems of mass mobilisation brought about by advances in transport; in the second, Mason writes, “the Japanese wargamed the attack on Pearl Harbor, the invasion of numerous targeted islands, the attack on Midway and a possible offensive in the Indian Ocean”.

According to Banks, analogue, in-person war-gaming fell away as a prominent military tool in the 1950s and 60s because of the rise of computers. Ever since, it has come in and out of fashion, Catherine explains, depending on the particular circumstances of an era: “Right now it’s the flavour of the day, because the problems of the allied nations are not black and white.” There’s counterinsurgency abroad. “Hybrid activities between near-peer competitors.” Almost-wars. There’s a lot of grey in the world, Catherine says, and war-gaming “is a method to perfect our ability to navigate these grey spaces”. Later, Banks quotes a line by the late economist Thomas Schelling: “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”

Having finished her plum, ready to war-game once more, Catherine sits back at the Nato command table. She’s across the conference room from the Russians, out of their hearing but in sight. Holding and arranging stacks of cards, and moving tokens around a map, the two groups glance suspiciously at each other from time to time but keep their distance. They are supposed to communicate only through players who have taken on a role today as diplomats. At the moment, there’s no appetite for negotiation. Nato is about to embark on its flashy border exercise, and over on the Russian table, strategy-trained Amy asks her colleagues, “Do we have anything to make their exercise look bad?” The group dove, Matteo, suggests they try something gentle. Maybe a little space-jamming. The others say no, no; even purple-sweatered Zlatan disagrees. He seems to have turned more hawkish since lunch.

I know it’s only a game but I’ve an impulse to get off the eighth floor. Does Bush House have a basement? With supplies?

Throughout the afternoon, these war-gamers are distracted by what Banks calls “injects”. You or I would recognise them as plot twists, meant to amp up tension, place the decision-makers in a bind, or raise or lower the overall pace of their play. On a large monitor that’s been placed between the two command tables, fictional news alerts appear. Undersea sabotage off Estonia. A Boko Haram raid in Nigeria. An Iranian attack on the Kurds. The players get better at distinguishing which major events may not matter much to them, and which smaller nuggets of news might be important. Informed of the suspicious death of the US ambassador to France, Amy thwarts any possible discussion of the matter by reminding her Russian colleagues that, with Nato, Finland and Ukraine their top priorities, “we don’t care about the Americans”. When there is a news alert about an energy crisis in Sri Lanka, Zlatan sits straighter in his seat. “This is huge for us,” he says. Amy agrees. She sorts through the cards on the table until she finds the one that’s labelled “CUT ENERGY SUPPLY”.

As they set about strangling the world of more oil and gas, Zlatan seems to be growing in confidence and influence at the table. When it’s announced via news-ticker that a Russian warship in the Black Sea has exploded, someone whispers, “Bastards.” Tim the physicist says, “See, I told you we should have done an anticipatory counterattack.” Zlatan (sweet Zlatan!) coolly suggests that they escalate the level of threat in response. Some sort of military manoeuvre might do it.

Amy isn’t sure. “We’re already doing a missile test,” she says. Isn’t that escalation enough? Tim sides with Zlatan, pitching an airspace incursion. If things get difficult in the aftermath, Tim continues, “we can always call it a pilot error”. Matteo doesn’t fancy any of this. Hesitant as ever, he points out that none of them know how much escalation is too much escalation. “We don’t know where the red line is,” Matteo reminds them.

He is right. Only Banks and his assistants are able to keep an accurate count of “escalation tokens” that accumulate throughout this war game. If players on either side provoke their opponents too much or too far (if they get their calculations even slightly wrong), they might pass an invisible threshold set by Banks and his team. Beyond this, they will all lose control of this standoff and events will spin towards disaster … Privately, Banks has told me he doesn’t expect the threshold to be breached. He promises he’ll be keeping things spicy and tense for the players. But he does not expect the world to end by teatime.

* * *

Now it is 3pm. The mood has turned a bit weird at the Russian table. The nearest curtains have been drawn to block out the glare of the sun and this enhances a bunkerish paranoia that seems to hang over the group. A spotlight shines down from the ceiling of the conference room. It happens to frame Zlatan in a perfect cone of light. This feels right, because Zlatan is deferred to more and more for decisions now. Tim backs him up. Tim’s his man. I find myself thinking of Zlatan and Tim as Jack and Roger in Lord of the Flies, the leader who rises from obscurity and his muscle. It is with difficulty that I take myself away from this developing spectacle to catch up with those more sober folks on the Nato side.

Someone has neatened all their maps and their game cards into geometric alignment. Catherine takes notes on everything that happens. Debriefs from those Nato underlings who wander through from next door are brisk and efficient. We are informed about successful troop movements, influential media blitzes, cunning psy-op campaigns. When I return to the Russian table, former leader Amy has vanished. It turns out she’s now playing a sub-game in the other conference room – the underlings’ conference room. Whether relegated by choice or by coup (it’s not clear), Amy has moved to a marginal role in information.

Matteo remains with the other two commanders but he seems quieter, his caution of less and less use to this other pair. It is the age of Zlatan and Tim now. “Can we get intel on the Finnish ports? … We’re gonna escalate again … We should reinforce offensive cyber … They’re not gonna know if we mobilise there, it’s not even escalatory … Don’t make me send you outside to the balcony … What’s the readiness level of our northern fleet? … I’m expecting a bit of blowback on … We should try to make gains in [outer] space … We could certainly use gains in space.”

By 4pm, an imaging satellite has been shot to smithereens, troops from both sides are on the move and a sarcastic American woman playing as a Russian diplomat has somehow persuaded the UN security council to condemn Nato for starting all this with a provocative border exercise. A news alert flashes on to the screen. The Doomsday Clock, which tracks the likelihood of global annihilation, has been set to 30 seconds to midnight, the severest threat-level since its inception. Zlatan, barely pausing to register this, is fingering a card labelled “DOMESTIC REPRESSION”. Tim wonders where his missile launchers have got to.

It’s about now that I wander over to Banks. Wearing an unreadable expression, he is observing the game from the side of the conference room.

Er, are we still OK here, I ask him?

Banks raises an eyebrow. He says that his PhD helpers have been discreetly tallying the escalation tokens on both tables and, in fact, we are running a bit closer to the point of no return than he expected. Banks doesn’t think the players will escalate matters much further. There’s half an hour left to go in the game, and ways they can row back from disaster, if the savvy and the will are there.

The afternoon sun, magnified by the balcony windows, is making it hotter and hotter in the conference room. I know this is only a game. We all know this is only a game. Even so, I’m nagged at by an impulse to get off the eighth floor. I find myself wondering: does Bush House have a basement? With supplies?

* * *

By the time Banks calls an end to the game, Finland has been utterly destabilised, the UN and Nato are barely on speaking terms, and billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment has been deployed or destroyed. Zlatan and Tim rise to shake hands, hitching up their trousers, pleased at how their day has turned out. Starting to recover their manners, they drift over to commiserate with their counterparts on the Nato table. Curious, they stare down at the neatened cards, finally able to see what it was this Nato lot were trying to achieve behind a haze of missed diplomatic signals and exploded-satellite debris. “We were playing to win,” Tim notices. “They were playing not to lose.”

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As for Zlatan, before he wanders away to the next-door conference room for biscuits and a debrief, I catch him muttering to himself. He’s looking down at the Nato board and saying, softly, “Boom, boom, boom.” It turned out that Zlatan was a terribly effective warmonger when he was asked to be. It’s almost as though he’s muttering his goodbyes to that all-powerful persona who for seven hours held all our collective futures in his hands. By the time he is in the other room, leaning against a wall and listening to Banks deliver a final address, Zlatan is one of the crowd again: a sweet Hungarian lecturer wearing a purple sweater.

Things almost went badly wrong today, Banks tells the players from the stage. The way he designed his war game, there was room for both sides to accumulate 115 tokens between them “without plunging the world into nuclear horror”. There are gasps when Banks says they accumulated 114 tokens today. “The game escalated precipitously at the end,” he explains. “You all got very eager. You missed crossing the threshold by the narrowest of margins the game will allow.”

Perhaps it counts as a sort of achievement. It certainly leaves us lots to ponder as we file out of Bush House. I glance up at the eighth-floor balcony, glad to be back on solid ground. I buy a pasty from Greggs and wolf it down, feeling obscurely grateful for the opportunity. A few days later, at the weekend, Banks sends me an email. He’s embarrassed. He made a mistake. Either he or one of his students botched the count. The final tally of escalation tokens in the game wasn’t 114, it was 116.

Boom, boom, boom.