Paul Vebber, a gameplay instructor in the navy, says that in the past decade the government has started using strategy board games much more often. They do not help predict outcomes. For that, the Pentagon has forecasting software, which it feeds with data on thousands of variables such as weather and weaponry, supply lines, training and morale. The software is pretty accurate for "tight, sterile" battles, such as those involving tanks in deserts, says an intelligence official. Board games are useful in a different way. They foster the critical but creative thinking needed to win (or avoid) a complex battle or campaign, he says.
The article goes on to explain that board games are advantageous over computer-based games for what is essentially a simulation:
...you can constantly tweak the rules to take account of new insights, says Timothy Wilkie of the National Defence University in Washington, DC. With computer games, this is much harder. Board games can also illuminate the most complex conflicts.
"just how a board game can make one "understand the war"?"
From extensive experience there are three ways:
1) Given this set of rules which when followed from T=0, you can follow the rules and make historical decisions and end the game at T=something with a historically accurate result. Then stop making historical decisions and see what happens. Much as DnD/Pathfinder is kind of making up a fantasy story as you go along, these guys are making up an alternative military history as they go along. Explore all the aspects of the confederates making just one more big push at the battle of gettysburg. Would they have likely "won"? What else would have resulted? And this covers from really zoomed in tactical picture to world wide picture, depending on game of course.
2) Given an axe to grind and some noobs to teach, here's a "fun" way to pound that info into their head. What does DVG's Alexander teach you about logistical support problems in the ancient world? What does GMT's COIN series teach you about the practical problems of insurgency / counter insurgency in modern warfare? You have to kind of stay on track here, going all far out isn't necessarily going to mix well with the rules. But you can still learn something, if you don't already know all about the axe to grind.
3) When its all done, nothing was really accomplished other than destroying a lot of time and equipment. Am I talking about real war or wargames? Both, obviously.
The biggest illusion problem is the old GIGO problem. If the game designers have irrational rules, you're going to end up with irrational experiences leading to irrational beliefs.
There are of course rules ranging from realistic to unrealistic and unfortunately that mapping has nothing to do with the mapping for "fun". I own a copy of a semi-legendary german naval WWII solitare simulation game "Steel Wolves" and its very realistic but frankly not the most fun thing to play. In fact its pretty frustrating. And that might be a very realistic portrayal of life in the german navy in WWII. I can see the pentagon point of view that the most educational war games probably do require paying the players to participate, vs the civilian ones mostly being fun enough that we pay near three figures for games.