Tom Clancy: The Writer And The Wargamer


When you talk about how Tom Clancy changed gaming, you run into a belligerent mindset. According to gamer lore, Clancy was a businessman uninterested in games – an investor capitalizing on his famous name. Any legacy, detractors insist, is coincidental and indirect. This is mistaken. Clancy saw more in games than profit. He saw the potential of games as an analytical tool, a medium beyond mere entertainment that could express the world through play.

In this two-part series, Critical Intel will examine Tom Clancy’s contribution to gaming, from founding Red Storm Entertainment in the 1990s to growing into a global brand. But our story starts long before that – in the 1980s – when Clancy first set out to conquer the world not with a powerful multimedia franchise, but a fleet of miniature ships and a wargame called Harpoon. Because before Tom Clancy changed games, games changed him.

Speculation ran rampant after Clancy published The Hunt for Red October. No one could figure out where he’d gotten his information. The rumor mill had it that he was an ex-spook, or a CIA plant hired to write pop-culture propaganda. Truth was, Clancy was an insurance agent with no military experience. He had excellent research skills and a keen mind for logical deduction, a man who could take two points of publically available information and logically fill the classified details in-between. Again and again over the course of his career, he’d predict top-secret programs and technologies, from the gradiometer used aboard the Red October to the importance of Iceland to Soviet naval strategy in Red Storm Rising. He even foresaw the potential to use airliners in a suicide attack, and in Teeth of the Tiger described a terrorist strike eerily similar to the one that took place at a Kenya mall last year. Some have dismissed this as simple imagination, but that doesn’t give Clancy enough credit – he was a self-taught master at collecting public information, easily one of the best open-source intelligence analysts of our time.

Clancy’s research for Red October pulled together every data set he could get his hands on, from Jane’s entries to stories he collected from retired submariners as he sold them insurance. One of those myriad sources was a tabletop wargame developed by a former naval officer – and it would become more than research material.

“A game that I’d written, a wargame called Harpoon, became popular,” remembers Larry Bond. “A guy named Tom Clancy bought a copy and used it as one of his data sources.” He chuckles as he remembers it. “Good guy to buy your game.”

Bond developed Harpoon, a miniatures game of modern naval combat, while serving as an officer on the USS McKean. Birthed from a highly technical wargame meant to study theoretical naval conflicts between NATO and the USSR, Bond developed Harpoon as a simplified, unclassified version that officers could use informally as a training aid. He published the game commercially shortly thereafter, and his work so impressed his superiors that they transferred Bond to the Center for Naval Analyses, a military think tank that used wargames to shape the U.S. Navy’s Cold War strategy. Though Harpoon contained no classified information, Clancy noticed that it still contained valuable data like Soviet torpedo types, ship speeds and plain-language explanations for naval terms like convergence zones and passive sonar.

In 1980, Clancy wrote Bond a letter asking for further information on a few points, and the two began a friendship based on a shared interest in naval warfare.

According to Bond, Clancy was never to his knowledge a gamer in the traditional sense – he never saw Clancy play, or talk about playing a game other than Harpoon – but Clancy saw their usefulness as an analytical tool. “He immediately grasped the value and utilities of wargames, which some people don’t. In the analytical community a lot of people misunderstand what you can do and not do with a wargame, and they try and use wargames to prove a certain point or advance an…agenda. That’s not what they’re for. A wargame has way too many variables. You play it once, luck drives everything. You play it a second time you start to see factors that repeat over and over again. You play it a third time you’ll see those factors for real and you’ll go, “Aha! This is a very important part of the battle.” It turned out that understanding would play a large role in Clancy’s second novel, Red Storm Rising, which depicted a theoretical clash between the Soviet Union and NATO.

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To say The Hunt for Red October was a hit would be like saying Jimi Hendrix played guitar. The book ruled the bestseller charts in 1984, partially because Ronald Reagan praised it in an interview. Clancy got a million-dollar advance on his next novel. Given that, Red Storm Rising was a risk. Rather than a Jack Ryan sequel, the novel was a sprawling procedural with an ensemble cast. There were artistic risks too. Before, Clancy only had to write an exciting and technically accurate novel, now he had to prove he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder and establish that he deserved the mantle as the world’s preeminent thriller writer. Red Storm had a lot riding on it – and now rather than tinkering for years, Clancy had to produce the book on a schedule.

For help, Clancy turned to Bond, who served as his reality check and apprentice. Clancy listed him as co-author, though Bond insists he wrote only about 1% of the book – his real contribution was helping Clancy form the plot, using his knowledge of Atlantic convoys developed from his years as a naval analyst. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Clancy got Bond’s expertise. Bond got to see Clancy at work, slamming out 10 pages a day, speculating about the holes in available information and on one occasion, crashing a Washington cocktail party to hunt down a Soviet defector and pick his brain about the Kremlin’s internal politics. Bond benefitted from the tutelage so much that he later became a thriller novelist himself.

And as part of their research, they played wargames.

While writing Red Storm, Clancy intuited a top-secret detail Bond was withholding: Iceland’s importance to Soviet naval strategy. If a war between NATO and the U.S.S.R. ever started, the Soviets would need to strike NATO convoys bringing troops and supplies from the U.S. to Europe. That would be a tricky proposition though, and require the Soviets to take Iceland both to neutralize the NATO fighter base defending the Atlantic and repurpose it as a bomber base for their campaign against the convoys. Clancy imagined this as a setup for a colossal naval engagement in the North Atlantic, pitting Soviet Backfire bombers against a NATO carrier group desperate to protect the convoys. It would be a sprawling, messy battle that would be hard to conceive of, much less write. “You’ve got literally hundreds of Backfire bombers coming in from the Northern flank of the Soviet Union,” says Bond. “You’ve got three carriers, hundreds of NATO aircraft, dozens of ships, and it’s just a big complex situation. And in my experience, you’ve got to bang the rocks together sometimes just to see how it plays out.”

To understand all the moving parts, Bond wrote a Harpoon scenario called “Dance of the Vampires,” to model the conflict. (The name came from USN tactical brevity code for antiship missiles, which show up as “V”s on radar.) The result was one of the most interesting wargames ever played, less a game and more a full-on military exercise.

The first thing that set the game apart was the players. In addition to Bond acting as referee, there was Peter Perla, Bond’s old boss from the Center for Naval Analyses and author of The Art of Wargaming. “He’s one of these scary smart guys,” says Bond. “He has a doctorate in statistics and understands it.” Former naval officers and professional naval analysts filled out the roster on each side. A former submariner, Bruce Spaulding, ran the Russian submarine force. Clancy served as the Soviet commander.

“Really he was one of the least experienced guys,” remembers Bond. “But he was the storyteller, and he did have an amazing grasp of the strategy and the goals.”

hunt for red october

Staffing each side with professionals made the game a formal affair. Before each game Bond held a briefing, known in the Navy as a pre-sail brief that covered the game’s rules, training goals and procedures. Rather than sitting across from each other at the miniatures table, the teams clustered in separate rooms in Bond’s house so they could openly strategize and bluff without giving anything away. One team formed its HQ in a bedroom, another bunkered down in the basement. “I’m in the third room and they’re bringing written orders to me,” describes Bond. “I’ve got an assistant logging the orders and feeding me information. For some of the games we did have computer assist, Jim Baker wrote this really useful referee assistant that was helping us calculate ranges and stuff. So all that was going on. It was very busy.”

In other words, the teams formed simulated war rooms to direct the action from afar. The game ran slow, taxing the Harpoon rules system to its limits. The vampires danced three times to complete the data set. Each game averaged eight hours.

The games brought several elements to light. First, it inspired Clancy’s brainstorm that the Soviets could lure away NATO’s F-14 fighters with an enormous bluff attack – launching AS-5 Kelt drone missiles fitted with radar reflectors so they looked like a bomber squadron on radar. Second, it helped Clancy understand that a Russian victory was not only possible, but provide a window into what it might look like. How many ships would be damaged? How many missiles would hit per salvo? Which weapons systems would fail, and which would succeed? “That’s what Tom was looking for,” says Bond. “He wanted to understand the sheer size of the battle, the scope of it – as a writer, as a poet almost – what are we talking about here? How would we describe this? You want to get the pace of the battle, the flow … I mean when things went south in the game, they went south very quickly, and that was something he wanted to get at for the book as well.” The game wasn’t about who would win – the Soviets had to for plot reasons – but what a win would feel like from the deck of a ship.

The result was a success. When Red Storm Rising released in 1986, those in-the-know once again praised it as accurate and speculated about whether Clancy had inside information. Even years later, the book’s reputation holds up in military circles – I once had a naval officer point the novel out on his bookshelf and say: “Have you read this? This is what I was training for back in the ’70s. Someone must’ve leaked to Clancy, because this is spot on.”

That accuracy came in part from Clancy’s interest in the utility of games – an interest some in the video game community mistake for being entirely financial.

It makes sense that Clancy would intuitively understand the analytical use games have. While not generally a gamer himself, Clancy’s style as a writer was founded on simulating events, the play of cause-and-effect, and “what if?” scenarios. This is the type of thinking games are founded on, and the sort of questions they’re designed to answer. What happens if I move right instead of left? Use submarines as scouts rather than attack vehicles? Launch a wave of missiles that look like bombers? How does that change the scenario and alter what happens then? These are the same logical “if-then” projections Clancy built novels around.

It’s not surprising, then, that Clancy’s world of spies and tech specs seemed destined to expand to games. Indeed, ten years after Red Storm Rising hit bookshelves, Clancy would again partner with a naval officer to form a video game studio of his own.

He called it Red Storm Entertainment, an homage the book games helped him write – but we’ll continue that story next week.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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