PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Beware the confidence heuristic

This quick tweet today by political psychologist Philip Tetlock caught my eye, since it has important implications for serious policy gaming.

As I have noted elsewhere, research on political forecasting (including Tetlock’s seminal book Expert Political Judgment (2005), as well as the work of he and his colleagues with the Good Judgment Project) has highlighted the greater efficacy of cognitive “foxes” (those not overly attached to a single paradigm) and Bayesian updaters in correctly anticipating future outcomes. By their very nature, such individuals are willing to accept new information and change their views accordingly.

By contrast, groups (including teams within wargames or other serious games) may be heavily swayed by persuasive, overly-confident rhetoric—the “confidence heuristic” referenced in the linked Bloomberg article. In many settings—especially with military participants—this dynamic may be further aggravated by the effects of hierarchy and rank. As a result, confident pronouncements by senior leaders may obscure uncertainty and drive out differing views, even if the uncertainty is important and the differing views might be correct.

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Much depends on the mix of individuals and group dynamics at work during the game, then, as well as the analysis and aggregation methods used to assess game findings.

For more insight into individuals, groups, and forecasting, I strongly recommend Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015), a highly readable book by Tetlock and Dan Gardener. Nate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight fame) stresses the importance of Bayesian updating in The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (2015).

For a few brief thoughts of my own, see my presentations earlier this year on Wargaming and Forecasting (Dstl) and In the Eye of the Beholder? Cognitive Challenges in Wargame Analysis (Connections UK, audio available here).

Simulation & Gaming (October 2018)

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The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 49, 5 (October 2018) is now available.

Symposium: Research in Health and Healthcare Simulation

Editorial

  • Healthcare Simulation Research in Simulation and Gaming: Past, Present, and Future
    • Taylor Sawyer and Mindi Anderson

Research Articles

  • A Brain-Based Instruction Simulation Approach to Improve Code Team Response in an Internal Medicine Unit
    • Timothy C. Clapper, Kapil Rajwani, Elizabeth Mauer, Linda M. Gerber, Joanna Lee, Kevin Ching, Stephanie Miller, and Kirana Gudi
  • Enhancing Clinical Learning Through an Innovative Instructor Application for ECMO Patient Simulators
    • Abdullah Alsalemi, Mohammed Al Disi, Yahya Alhomsi, Fayçal Bensaali, Abbes Amira, and Guillaume Alinier
  • Customization of Avatars in a HPV Digital Gaming Intervention for College-Age Males: An Experimental Study
    • Gabrielle Darville, Charkarra Anderson – Lewis, Michael Stellefson, Yu-Hao Lee, Jann MacInnes, R. Morgan Pigg, Jr., Juan E. Gilbert, and Sanethia Thomas
  • An Exploratory Study on the Köhler Effect and Flow in Long-term Exergaming
    • Seungmin Lee, Nicholas D. Myers, Taiwoo Park, Christopher R. Hill, and Deborah L. Feltz
  • Zombies vs. Anxiety: An Augmentation Study of Prescribed Video Game Play Compared to Medication in Reducing Anxiety Symptoms
    • Matthew T. Fish, Carmen V. Russoniello, and Kevin O’Brien

Simulation Ready to Use

  • Cells of War: A Serious Game for Familiarizing Players With the Immune System
    • Konstantina Konstantara and Stelios Xinogalos

 

Connections NL 2019 after action report

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Did you miss Connections Netherlands wargaming conference this year? If so, here’s a chance to read their after action report (pdf).

 

“Raising the next generation of wargamers” (+a somewhat related rant)

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At War on the Rocks, Sebastien Bae (RAND) discusses raising the next generation of wargamers:

Wargaming in today’s defense community is the purview of a select few with the necessary niche expertise and experience. It relies on a cadre of senior wargamers who spearheaded professional wargaming during the 1980s and 1990s. The community is best depicted with an inverted pyramid, since senior wargamers significantly outnumber young, more junior ones. Military wargaming also relies heavily on defense contractors and civilian experts. However, this approach can be costly, doesn’t build long-term institutional knowledge, and can be unpredictable in terms of quality. In the absence of an official wargaming military occupational specialty, or a civilian degree in wargaming, most professional wargamers are usually converted hobbyist board gamers with backgrounds in political science, military planning, and operations research. Finally, despite existing wargaming education opportunities, there is no established talent pipeline through which young servicemembers are identified, trained, educated, and nurtured to be wargamers as with other military specialties.

As the demand for wargaming grows, cultivating the next generation of wargamers will become critical to the field’s future. Therefore, the Defense Department will need to draw from a much wider pool of talent, inside and outside the military, and change the way it recruits, trains, funds, and promotes wargamers.

He offers several ideas to address this potential shortfall, including learning through (wargame) play/competition and “establishing and funding a systematic process to expose both enlisted troops and officers to wargaming,” including regular exposure in professional military education. The latter is, I think, particularly important: wargames need to be part of the process early so as to generate familiarity, and inclulcate critical consumer skills (that is, the ability to distinguish between a good and flawed game).

Bae also notes:

For long-term success, the community of wargamers cannot be limited to the defense community and its periphery. Otherwise, wargaming risks becoming parochial, isolated, and intellectually stagnant. The Defense Department should consider supporting a wide range of efforts to broaden its talent pool with top recruits from academia.

He’s right—that’s a terrific idea, both in terms of encouraging student interest in wargaming and broader intellectual cross-fertilization. However, it faces a remarkable number of bureaucratic hurdles.

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One key problem is site access, especially for academics (who aren’t defence contractors or government personnel, or aren’t at US universities that do substantial defence contracting), hobby/commercial designers, and university students. It is even harder if you aren’t a US citizen.

For example, in my own personal experience, doing things like this:

  • Interviewing the senior leadership of a designated terrorist organization at one of their organization’s safehouses in Damascus.
  • Arranging to be flown into Benghazi on a rebel plane at the height of the Libyan civil war.
  • Setting up meetings at the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Visiting Iran.

…is considerably easier than:

  • Attending a MORS conference (some years are worse than others).
  • Getting someone to agree to process the paperwork for a wargame-related visit to a NATO facility on an American military base. (The fact that I spent this morning on the phone trying to get this done is entirely unrelated to this rant, of course.)
  • Running an (unclassified) game of AFTERSHOCK at a Canadian defence establishment.
  • Getting someone to put the UK IVCO paperwork in a fax machine at the High Commission (embassy) for a visit to Dstl.

Really.

This is not a US problem. Rather, it is (as some of the examples above suggest) a NATO-wide problem. And things are even worse if, say, you’re Brian Train.*

In addition to this is a labyrinth of contracting issues if you want to receive some remuneration, since the process is set up for large defence contractors not for individual designers and academics. It once took Tom Fisher and I almost a year to get a $150 invoice paid by one American professional military education establishment. Embarrassed colleagues elsewhere once had to do an office whip-around for the price of my Greyhound bus ticket, since they couldn’t get my travel expenses authorized in time.

One might think such issues of access and flexibility are most severe in the US, given the size and bureaucratic complexity of the US defence establishment, the presence of many large defence contractors, and the tendency of the US military to NOFORN things that really don’t need to be limited to US citizens. However, I would argue that this problem has even more deleterious effects elsewhere in NATO (and beyond), where the community of wargamers is much smaller, resources are more constrained, and the need for cooperation and outreach is correspondingly greater.

(/rant)

On a final note, it would have been nice to have seen some mention in Bae’s very good piece of the Connections interdisciplinary wargame conference, held annually in the US, UK, Canada, Netherlands, and Australia. It is not hard to get students to attend these: this year, I had students at Connections North, Connections US, and Connections UK.  Certainly, there is no better place to acquaint yourself with the art and science of wargaming and meet a (somewhat) diverse and (certainly) interdiciplinary group of professional wargamers.

 


*I’m willing to bet Brian comments on this within 48 hours.

Belt and Road matrix game

BeltAndRoadPAXsims is pleased to present a “Belt and Road” matrix game examining Chinese grand strategy, by the ever-prolific Tim Price. The file (which you can download from here) includes a map; counters/assets/markers; briefing documents for China, the US (and allies), Russia, India, and ASEAN states; random event cards; and brief instructions on how to play a matrix game.

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Further guidance on playing, facilitating, and designing matrix games can be found in the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) User Guide, available as a pdf download from The Game Crafter. The full Matrix Game Construction Kit (also available from The Game Crafter) contains everything you need to develop and run matrix games for professional, educational, and hobby applications.

MaGCK

For other games on this and related themes, see:

A Very British Coup: A game of political negotiation

The following piece has been written for PAXsims by Jim Wallman of Stone Paper Scissors. A Very British Coup was run at the recent Labour Party conference in Liverpool, where it attracted some press attention. You’ll also find additional details on Jim’s blog, No Game Survives


Late in 2017 I was approached by Richard Barbrook of Digital Liberties to design a political megagame for UK Labour Party activists to practice negotiation skills and practice balancing ideology and pragmatism.

A primary inspiration for the game was to come from Chris Mullin’s political thriller A Very British Coup, published in 1982 and depicting a fantastical scenario of a principled and popular left-wing labour leader (Harry Perkins) sweeping to power in an unexpected election victory as a discredited and failing Tory government collapsed under a plethora of scandals.  The action of the story was all about how the  ‘The Establishment’ – the bête noire of the Left – comprising, press barons, the old boy network, the security services and the military, egged on by Foreign Influences (a Republican-led USA) would conspire to bring down a popular socialist government by subversion, foul means and fake news.  The book was dramatised by Channel 4 in 1988, and I well remember enjoying it immensely at the time.  Clearly a fantastical scenario.

avbc-player-guide-cover.jpgDesigning a purely political game has a number of issues that affect the megagame design.  In this case the main design aim was a game that would be accessible to non-gamers, or at least people for whom the only board game they would have heard of would be Monopoly.  In addition the game should maximise negotiation to give the players the chance to not only negotiate but to experience, directly in the game, second (and even third) order consequences of their negotiations.  Something that the players might rarely get to do in a safe-to-fail environment.

The chosen game theme was especially appropriate – we did not want to divert or distract players into current political arguments or rivalries – so setting the game safely in the 1980s meant that whilst the background was familiar enough, it was also possible for a player to role play a faction that might not necessarily represent her current political perspective.  The key to the game was to be negotiation, after all.  It was also for this reason that the game simplified and adjusted the 1980s setting – the aim was not for the game to be a detailed political simulation but a negotiation game themed on that topic.  This allowed better game balance and player agency (although the ‘unhistorical’ aspect did worry a tiny minority of older players who remembered the 1980s, some of whom seemed to still want to refight those old battles!).

The first step, of course, was to build the game environment and a number of experts in the history of the Labour Party in the 1980s helpfully created a list of Labour ‘Factions’ who would represent the majority of the player teams.  Of course only having Labour Factions as teams would miss the important element in any game of an active adversary – an adversary adds that important element of pressure and tension into the game.  The scenario described in the eponymous book has some very clear adversaries.  So it was obvious from the outset that the primary dynamic of the game would be a number of Labour party factions negotiating and interacting, with a smaller group of ‘Establishment’ player teams providing challenges and attempting to exacerbate the infighting and bring influence to bear to de-rail the left-wing legislative programme.

But what would the Factions be negotiating about? What would be the role of the Cabinet? How would players interact with each other?  These are (and were in this case) key game design questions.  It is not enough to just have players in the room talking to each other – they must also be making meaningful decisions and taking in-game actions that have in-game consequences.

And this is also the point where any megagame design has to, almost inevitably, part company with the narrative of a novel, play or film that inspired the game theme.

To be at their best, megagames have to be open-ended rather than scripted, and the participants must be given real agency in the game.  So whilst the game can be inspired by a novel it cannot (and should not) attempt to become a re-enactment of it.  This is an important aspect of game design – works of fiction are not (or at least rarely) amenable to good gamification straight out of the pages.  It is important to remember this.  Just because characters exist in the fiction does not necessarily mean they would have agency in the game context – often they do not.

As part of my research I re-read the 1983 Labour Manifesto, and the description of the real aspirations of a fairly leftish party of the time (or ‘far left’ by comparison to the Blair years).  This was the context of Mullin’s original story, where it was the Perkins’ Government’s programme of ‘dangerious left-wing dogma’ that the Establishment was trying to counter.  So it seemed obvious to me that a key focus would be on implementing the manifesto.  Party Faction teams would therefore be arguing and manoeuvring to have their favoured policies enacted as early as possible in the life of the government. The game then tracked, for each policy, its Impact, Cost and Outrage scores.  Balancing these three factors to get the most impact with the least cost or outrage (from the right wing press) was the core game metric, although there were other factors such as the popularity of the policy with party members, MPs and the Trade Unions.

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Photo credit: Stone Paper Scissors.

It also quickly became obvious that the Cabinet would not be played by players because this would erode the role of the faction teams as the main drivers of the game (remember the game aim of maximising the opportunity for practicing negotiation skills).  So the game would have the various factions seeking to influence and ‘control’ non-played cabinet members, and use that as leverage in the important game process of setting the legislative agenda.  Control of a Cabinet member would increase the influence a faction had, particularly in Parliament – but control could be challenged and other factions could use their influence to gain control instead.  The struggle to influence the Cabinet was the second main activity for player teams, both within the Labour Party and the Establishment (who could bring the old boy network into play too).

The game, for the Labour Factions was on four levels and members of the teams were expected to manage their time to work on multiple levels simultaneously:

  • Influencing Cabinet – and the (non-played) Cabinet members whose influence weighs in significantly in the game on behalf of the faction.01 AVBC influence cards
  • Influencing the order that policies are enacted in parliament. The game timescale covered several years, because although a week is a long time in politics, legislation grinds slowly. And the measures that get passed have all have Impact (for good).
  • Influencing the vote in parliament, both directly and indirectly.The weakened Tory Opposition was still present (and played) in parliament so there were opportunities for cross-party agreements.
  • And at the same time agreeing compromises and deals with the other factions to get things done.

The aspect of time management and team coordination are also important parts of the game experience.  Teams who were able to manage themselves well, found the game easier.

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Photo credit: Stone Paper Scissors.

Obviously, the Government (represented by the collective activities of the Labour Faction teams) as a whole would get little or nothing done, unless it could manage its infighting and cut deals – ‘log rolling’ if you will – the game allowed players to have a lot of fun with doctrinal and principled arguments and infighting.  And that is entertaining in its way.  But, unless they find ways of pulling together, the party’s impact is small, and consequently its public support dwindles under the constant assault of a hostile press.  Too many individual victories could lead to group defeat, and an early General Election (= A Bad Thing).  And this was the point of the game – illustrating that holding on to a position dogmatically meant that policies failed to become enacted (in the game) – and players learnt though emerging gameplay that the only way they can achieve sufficient impact as a government is by finding common ground and compromising. This is a non-trivial challenge, but one that is obviously mirrored in the real world.

The Establishment Adversaries in the game also influenced the progress of legislation and the impact of government by:

  • Influencing Cabinet members (through the old boy network, blackmail or other dirty tricks)
  • Influencing the Impact of legislation (through the old boy network and the civil service legislation could be delayed or diluted due to ‘technicalities’)
  • Influencing the public popularity of the government (through the media power of the Press Baron team).

However, the Establishment teams also had their own negotiation and communication challenges.  One of my main changes over the original novel was to make how the Establishment works a little more realistic – so rather than a monolithic extra-democratic power bloc envisioned in some of the more paranoid fears of the left in the 1980s in this game they are a good deal less efficient and also have their own internal pressures, objectives and concerns.  Organising resistance to the new Government’s policies has to be in the context of resolving their own internal factional issues. Whitehall has often been described as ‘a loose association of warring tribes’.  Hence in this game the Establishment is more ‘Yes, Minister’ in feel. This opens the game up to negotiation between the Establishment and the Labour factions on specific issues where there are common interests.  This made the game a lot more nuanced and interesting for all the teams.

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Photo credit: Stone Paper Scissors.

The value of the game, which has been run several times now, is in the way it highlights this conflict between factional perspective and wider objectives.  Players in the game often find that the first couple of turns the government is pretty ineffective as the infighting leads to watered down or low-impact policies being enacted, or even legislation failing to be enacted at all. As the game progresses the players realise (usually) that more can be achieved by compromise, careful communication and even a bit of mutual trust and respect.

Far from being a game to teach the Labour movement to ‘defeat’ those who would oppose it from within the party and/or from the so-called ‘Deep State’ this game encourages players to practice the skills that are practical and useful is defusing internal conflicts and finding common ground and consensus.

Finally a couple of anecdotes from previous games illustrate how a very simple game system can produce some interesting emerging gameplay:

  • The Head of MI6 arrested for treason as a result of a falling out within the Establishment teams (instigated by the Head of MI5).
  • The Cabinet Secretary (manipulated by the Police) causes Press Reform to be brought to Parliament earlier than planned (much to the consternation of the Press Baron) but because nobody was ready it failed to pass (much to the delight of the Press Baron).
  • A Faction of the Labour Party (Fabian Society) was on the brink of being expelled from the Party, when everyone realised just how bad that would look, and the teams found a compromise.

Jim Wallman

 

 

 

 

Will to fight

Back in July, we mentioned Ben Connable’s presentation on “the will to fight” at the Connections US wargaming conference. Now we are pleased to post links to the two recently-released RAND studies on the military will to fight (Connable et al, 2018) and national will to fight (McNerney et al, 2018):

x1537447779761.jpg.pagespeed.ic.mrO8JdPXvH.jpgWill to fight may be the single most important factor in war. The U.S. military accepts this premise: War is a human contest of opposing, independent wills. The purpose of using force is to bend and break adversary will. But this fundamental concept is poorly integrated into practice. The United States and its allies incur steep costs when they fail to place will to fight at the fore, when they misinterpret will to fight because it is ill-defined, or when they ignore it entirely. This report defines will to fight and describes its importance to the outcomes of wars. It gives the U.S. and allied militaries a way to better integrate will to fight into doctrine, planning, training, education, intelligence analysis, and military adviser assessments. It provides (1) a flexible, scalable model of will to fight that can be applied to any ground combat unit and (2) an experimental simulation model.

x1537447770588.jpg.pagespeed.ic.-2B1VyhWWt.jpgWhat drives some governments to persevere in war at any price while others choose to stop fighting? It is often less-tangible political and economic variables, rather than raw military power, that ultimately determine national will to fight. In this analysis, the authors explore how these variables strengthen or weaken a government’s determination to conduct sustained military operations, even when the expectation of success decreases or the need for significant political, economic, and military sacrifices increases.

This report is part of a broader RAND Arroyo Center effort to help U.S. leaders better understand and influence will to fight at both the national level and the tactical and operational levels. It presents findings and recommendations based on a wide-ranging literature review, a series of interviews, 15 case studies (including deep dives into conflicts involving the Korean Peninsula and Russia), and reviews of relevant modeling and war-gaming.

The authors propose an exploratory model of 15 variables that can be tailored and applied to a wide set of conflict scenarios and drive a much-needed dialogue among analysts conducting threat assessments, contingency plans, war games, and other efforts that require an evaluation of how future conflicts might unfold. The recommendations should provide insights into how leaders can influence will to fight in both allies and adversaries.

The former study in particular examines the way in which wargames do or do not model “will to fight,” and suggests some key lessons for future wargame design:

Adding will to fight changes combat simulation outcomes

  • Most U.S. military war games and simulations either do not include will to fight or include only minor proxies of it.
  • However, the simulated runs performed for this report showed that adding will-to-fight factors always changes combat outcomes and, in some cases, outcomes are significantly different.

Recommendations 

  • U.S. Army and Joint Force should adopt a universal definition and model of will to fight.
  • Include will to fight in all holistic estimates of ground combat effectiveness.
  • War games and simulations of combat should include will to fight.

Design Matters: Tiny Epic Zombies…and Glasses

Design Matters: A series on matters relating to design, and why design thinking matters.

Rex Brynen and I recently play tested Rex’s brand new copy of Tiny Epic Zombies. Our ensuing after-play discussion got us thinking about the game and certain common, irksome points we thought were design pitfalls to be avoided in any games, whether destined for the entertainment market, or geared toward the serious gaming and educational spheres. Thus the idea of Design Matters was born.

Tiny Epic Zombies – A Game of Brutal Survival
www.gamelyngames.com
www.gamelyngames.com/tiny-epic/tiny-epic-zombies-deluxe

Watch it Played
https://youtu.be/O9u8VXz8u80

I LOVE Gamelyn Games. I do. I own every single one of their games, love the concepts, adore the themes, am awed by the artwork, thrilled with the simple —yet engaging— rulesets: all in small inexpensive packages.

I say this, because, while I do enjoy the theme, concept, and art, Tiny Epic Zombies presents a few significant —avoidable— problems that should come as a lesson to all game designers.

Size matters.

Tiny Epic Games are not small, by any means, in their effect or entertainment value. Where Tiny Epic Zombies’ (TE:Z) size is lacking is in its small font.

Graphic design is about much more that making something pretty. The fundamentals of graphic design deal with visual communication; the key word being communication. If information is not being clearly, and effectively, communicated it can severely impede gameplay. If this is an intended effect, to frustrate or slow players down, it can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in the case of TE:Z it is not. Sometimes icons, or text are impossible to read at any reasonable distance.

From a graphic design perspective: parts of the rulebook, certain objective cards, some mall map cards, TE:Z comes up short. This author and Rex Brynen both had difficulty discerning the text on certain cards without picking up the card and playing with the distance, necessitating glasses, adjusting glasses, removing glasses, or resorting to using the magnifier function of my iPhone to read some text. In one particular case it was absolutely impossible to discern what icon was being used on an objective card. Not difficult, not challenging, but impossible. The font size used on the Investigate the Source Objective Card —for example— was simply too small. The print resolution would not allow for the icon in the text to be seen as anything other than a circle with a blob. This inexcusable error in graphic design was immensely frustrating, and forced us to work backwards, trying to figure out what the icon could possible be. The design decision to go with such an impossibly small icon is confounding and frustrating.

It is always important to remember that —particularly— in game design, form should follow function. Games enjoyment, and engagement depend so much on a suspension of disbelief that any shock to the system that brings us out of the game experience will have an associated detraction from said game experience. Stopping the action to peer over a card, squinting to read text is anathema to a positive game experience.

Contrast this user experience (UX) with the thoroughly adorable and fun ITEMeeples Gamelyn produces for TE:Z. ITEMeeples, are iconic, specialized, plastic avatars with holes in them to place “reminder” items on a player’s character piece, representing weapons. While fundamentally unnecessary to gameplay, they add so much enjoyment and fun to the UX, and suspension of disbelief (“no, I really am carrying a chainsaw!”) they become an intrinsic piece of the game experience and enjoyment. They are so intrinsic to the positive game experience, their creation and inclusion in a number of the Tiny Epic Games makes one wonder how we ever gamed without them.

This fabulous attention to detail in this particular aspect of the game experience, while ignoring the game experience in another should serve as a cautionary tale to game designers: everything matters.

Location, location, location

The Echo Ridge Mall is the nexus of this little slice of this apocalyptic zombie outbreak. It is beautiful, with a richness of art that I admire tremendously.

However, in our play test this richness in detail sometimes became problematic. Each of the separate “stores” has any or all of: its own written rules box, objective placement icons, room numbers, or secret passages. These elements get lost in the richness of the art at tabletop distances. If our two player test had troubles, I can only imagine the difficulty five players, huddled around a large table in a semi-lit room would have discerning what they were supposed to do o a given card. Certainly, after one has played through a few rounds, the card-store effects become second nature, but having to pick up a piece of the map in order to read what you’re supposed to do, displacing items, meeples, and tokens is problematic.

1528240027632Further, unlike other Tiny Epic Games I’ve played through, the precise placement of the cards can be quite important. Each of these store location cards is divided into three rooms, which are bordered by thick walls. Each card, in turn, is bordered by this same thickness of wall, creating a discrete, modular store. Eight (8) of these stores surround a central courtyard in a layout as pictured below. Gamelyn produces a TE:Z Gamemat and online visual aid to lay this out.

Where other Tiny Epic Games’ card-location is only important insofar as where they are placed relative to each other (adjacent or not), TE:Z’s location-cards are placed and played directly against one another. This impacts movement, shooting, and card legibility.

The problems with this scheme are many fold:

Some cards will be placed upside-down. This would not matter except for the fact that many rules are written on the location-cards themselves resulting in a situation where many cards’ rules will be upside-down relative to the player. Add to this the font-size problem discussed above and early play grinds to a halt as players jockey for position to read a card, or have to pick up said location in order to proceed.

This, in turn leads to another —fiddly— problem: position matters. Each location card has one main “opening” or entrance, otherwise it is bounded by a solid-line wall. Players may move through walls, as they are presumed to find or make gaps through (strangely weak?) mall walls. If players pick-up and replace location-cards, jostle location-cards during gameplay or accidentally shift their position in any way, this can dramatically affect movement, shooting, tactics, and approach to gameplay. The Gamelyn-produced TE:Z Gamemat-for-purchase addresses this somewhat, but this particularly fiddly scheme could have been more easily solved with a simple graphic element — an alignment arrow in the middle of each card edge.

As walls are so fundamentally important to the gameplay, it struck us as very strange that all walls were clear, and of uniform width except for the central courtyard walls. Where all location-cards’ rooms are very clearly delineated by thick walls or uniform width, the central courtyard is divided into five (5) sections by markedly thinner walls. These walls are so different, we didn’t even consider them walls when playing through the game in our play test. Only upon careful review of the rules did we realize, thanks to a simple qualifying statement (p.8 “*Note: the Courtyard has 5 rooms*”), that these were meant to be walls, and the courtyard was not simply one large room. This would have substantially altered our game outcome. The lack of consistency in the application of this design element is inexplicable to me.

The decision to go this particular route with location-cards (stores), has another side-effect: The playmap neither looks nor feel like a mall. Referring back to the suspension of disbelief and user experience (UX) design discussed above: a decision was made to create this particular schema that took Rex and myself out of the game. When something doesn’t feel like what it is expected to be, there is a cognitive disconnect that occurs that informs gameplay. This can be a powerful tool when implemented properly, or a distracting nuisance when accidental. The result was —for us— a persistent feeling that something didn’t quite feel right.

Dissociative Personality Disorder (AKA I can do what?)

On that same front, we questioned the abilities of a number of the Player Cards. Not so much the abilities themselves, but the abilities associated with the names of the Player Cards.

User experience (UX) is a tricky and very particular aspect of any game design to master, largely because it relies on fickle and finicky human emotion, response, behaviour, and expectation. Designers can use psychology, the senses, and numerous devices to shape this experience. Gotten right, a game’s UX can overcome many a shortcoming. Gotten wrong it can detract from the pleasure of play.

There are specific instances where the player has a reasonable expectation of what a particular Player Card should allow the player to do:

Athlete Card: enables greater movement
Burglar Card: expanded item acquisition powers
Mechanic Card: better at repairs

When this expectation (Based purely on Name) meshes with the effect of a particular card, the result is pleasing and harmonious: a triumph of UX design.

When this does not:

Fry Cook Card: somehow make less noise?
Photographer Card: ending your turn in a store with 2 zombies results in finding ammunition?
Scientist Card: if any other player kills three or more zombies gain ammunition?

a disconnect results while questioning the meaning/source of these effects. While not insurmountable, the unintended consequence of a naming convention and the resultant cognitive dissonance when an effect does not match one’s expectation is entirely avoidable.

If these Character cards were named for persons instead of a specific role —Mary instead of Photographer— there would be no (reasonable) expectation of effect: why can’t she, instead, see things better with her zoom lens —improving search— for example. While this won’t break a game, it will distract, and distractions of this type will almost always lead to lessening enjoyment. Anytime a player begins questioning what the designer was thinking, the player is out-of-the-game.

What Went Right

The above should serve as cautionary reminders to PAXSims’ community of game designers and enthusiasts: every aspect of a game needs to be considered. A solid theme/idea/ruleset is not enough, a designer needs to communicate clearly and shape gameplay with intention or the game experience can suffer.

However, when you do get things right —as Gamelyn often does— you can create great experiences.

Excepting the above, TE:Z remains an enjoyable game because what it gets right it gets really right.

Some design shortcomings aside, the game art is —simply— fantastic. The clear theme carries throughout the game and spectacular card and box art. The game’s art direction truly sets the stage for the coming zombie apocalypse. Before the players even open the box, the stage has been set, then reinforced. Gamelyn, in my view, always gets this right. This is the campy, fun, zombie game experience you want with the pièce d’art of the contemporary gaming world: ITEMeeples.

ITEMeeples add so much fun and thrill to the game that no tiny pieces of plastic have any business doing —they are near magical. The excitement of attaching a chainsaw or assault rifle to your character meeple is reminiscent of opening a surprise gift. Completely unnecessary to the rules, this component-based element of UX is beyond spectacularly fun. Add a police car or motorcycle into which you can literally place your ITEMeeple, and you’ll be making engine noises while moving your pawn like you did when you were pretend driving in the back of your parents’ car as a child. This level of engagement clearly demonstrates how well-chosen and designed components can directly impact the game experience. (A phenomenon we harnessed in developing MaGCK, using iconic images as aides-memoire for matrix gaming)

Objectives (excepting some of their card design problems) are largely fun affairs where the ongoing challenge of risk-reward balanced against time constraints and a little bit of greed (but I really want to pick up that bazooka in the other store) played out —for us— down to the wire. The game seems to achieve a great balance of ramping up danger, while keeping you on the edge of your seat with interesting choices. Developing appropriate challenges and choices shape the game experience and flow, great care was taken in creating and testing these objectives, I am certain.

Once you get into the groove of the gameplay (one or two full turns to get up to speed), the game progresses quickly, satisfyingly ramping up intensity. If not for the distractions discussed above, the play is near seamless, with decision points to test each player’s resolve. Ease of access, understanding, and a gradual learning curve benefit this (and many) game greatly.

The card-based AI work very well. We played cooperatively without a Zombie-player, and the anticipation of each end-of-turn search-card’s resolution kept us in some suspense. I look forward to playing a larger, competitive game with the full complement of 5 players to note the differing experience. (clearly knowing each location-card’s ability will be fundamental to this, I believe) Scalability is a great aspect of the game: playable by one to a full complement of five players.

Overall, while not my favourite Gamelyn gameplay experience, Tiny epic Zombies remains a game I would replay. For PAXSims’ readers’ purposes, the game does illustrate a number of avoidable design pitfalls that should be considered by game designers and producers:

Design matters:

We can see, in the example of TE:Z, it is not enough for a game to be pretty (but sometimes, it certainly helps!). While great visuals can immediately engage players, clarity and legibility are fundamental in rules layout, design, and ability descriptions. Form must follow function. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to read a rule, card, ability, or effect.

Consistency is key. A lack of consistent application of design elements can —and often will— lead to misunderstanding and misplay, affecting the overall game experience. Design must be purposeful and mindful in order to lead the player to the game experience the designer wants. Any lapse in this regard will have unintended consequences.

Expectations must be mindfully considered and managed as they will form an immediate opinion and impression. If something looks out-of-place it creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, which —if purposeful— can be a powerful tool —if accidental— will detract from a game and risk running it off the rails.

Components and visuals can have tremendous positive impact, when properly implemented, or detract from gameplay when applied carelessly. The purposeful use of media will have an important impact on a game. (As discussed at Connections North in the presentation Grand Designs – Design Thinking in Games)

An accessible learning curve, geared toward the target player creates ease and comfort, allowing players to engage in the game quickly. The faster a player can integrate the rules into their experience, and simply engage in the theme of the game, the more effective the game will be.

Wargame Designers Series: Peter Perla

As part of their Wargame Designers Series, Columbia Games interviews Peter Perla (author of the seminal Art of Wargaming).

Reminder: Ottawa workshop on serious games for policy analysis (November 22-23)

Here is a reminder that on November 22-23 I will be conducting a two day professional development workshop on serious games for policy analysis and capacity-building in Ottawa. The course will provide an overview of how games might enhance foresight, innovation, and policy-development, and will include an introduction to various game approaches, design, and facilitation techniques.

Notice - NPSIA-PT&D's Practical Certificate in Serious Games for Policy Analysis and Capacity-Building workshop - Nov 2018

You will find further details and registration information at the link here.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 16 September 2018

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PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.

PAXsims

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Landpower: GAAT has been made available for free in print-and-play format, via BoardGameGeek.

Landpower: GAAT (the Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey scenario) is a wargame designed by LTC Patrick Schoof at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and used for instruction in academic year 2018.

Landpower is designed to drive both sides to plan and conduct sequential operations in a large scale combat environment. Many parts of shaping and combat are intentionally abstracted to allow the intended training audience to focus on appropriate decisions at the division echelon as a division commander and staff. The mechanics of the game are intentionally minimized above and below the echelon of decision. A well-planned operation with its events synchronized usually works most of the time. A poorly planned large scale operation will likely result in failure. Friction is intentionally built in! Landpower was designed to meet educational learning objectives while still being able to stand alone as a wargame. Because of this, most of the instructions ask the reader to treat the conduct of it as an exercise. In the classroom, Landpower is not about the game, but rather the discussion the wargame elicits.

The exercise is conducted over a series of days. Each day is broken down into four, six-hour turns. During the turns each side will have opportunities to conduct operations to achieve their side’s objectives.

The scenario in Landpower is conducted mostly in Azerbaijan based on the GAAT (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey) terrain. Each hex is roughly 6.5km across. The terrain has been abstracted for the division echelon of decision with consideration given to possible second order effects of a particular feature’s inclusion or exclusion from the exercise. For example, the terrain at 39°56’42.3″N 48°21’00.4″E was treated as urban, and the northwest-southeast road was omitted because it would not change operations, though the bridge was retained.

Elsewhere at BGG, Eric Walters comments:

Glad to see this finally available on Board Game Geek–thanks to U.S. Army CGSC. For the DoD crowd, it’s also available via milBook on the Serious Games group.

The die-hard wargamers will be honestly not very impressed with what they see; it’s a very, very basic tactical move and shoot game, with supporting arms/Multi-Domain warfare handled via the use of cards. But understand that most of the officers have never even seen a board wargame, much less played one, and it’s a good entry-level venue to learn how to execute tactical courses of action in an admittedly crude way. Things we take for granted as board wargamers are completely new to most of the officers. It’s also not hard to want to “bolt on” other things onto the basic game, such as Armenian organizations, a Marine Expeditionary Brigade, etc.

Best of all, it’s relatively uncomplicated as far as wargames go and plays quite fast!

Regarding the debate on how useful the game is, much depends on the desired learning outcomes. As a faculty member of U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (as well as a long-experienced wargamer), it fills the bill for what we need for the classes we teach. That said, I can understand why someone would say, “That’s it? That’s all there is?” Yes, there should be more. Absolutely. But we as faculty are constrained by the amount of hours devoted to particular subjects, so we typically move on to other fields of study mandated to us. Our hope is that our officers are sufficiently intrigued so that they’ll continue investigations into a deeper understanding through self-study. It doesn’t happen often, but it occasionally does happen. It’s a fair criticism to say that there’s not enough reinforcement and enhancement of such experiences, both within the school and beyond it.

PAXsims

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All of the conference presentations from the recent Connections UK 2018 professional wargaming conference are now available from the Connections UK website.

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PAXsims

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The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation 15, 4 (October 2018) is now available online.

PAXsims

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The Military Operations Research Society will be holding a Cyberspace Wargaming and Analytics workshop on 23-25 October 2018 at MITRE Corporation (McLean, VA):

The primary objective of the workshop is to collaborate on data, models and wargaming best practices plus lessons for current cyberspace wargames and operations. This includes describing the current state, clarifying gaps and developing solutions for cyberspace operations data, models and wargaming. This event is FREE to US Government Civilian and Active Duty personnel.

The workshops are geared to span the spectrum of wargaming experience from the novice wargamer, who want to increase their knowledge of wargaming techniques in the training working groups, to master game designers, who want to share and increase the wargaming body of knowledge within a cyber context.

The keynote speaker will be John T. Hanley Jr., Ph.D. Dr. Hanley is currently an independent consultant working on strategic studies and gaming. He served as the Deputy Director for Strategy Management in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during the period March 2010 to March 2012. His responsibilities included developing a strategic assessment process to inform top-down guidance and create shared vision, values and strategies within the Intelligence Community, bringing strategic thinking to strategy-to-budget processes, and leading the Galileo Program to promote and reward innovation within the IC. For his full bio, visit http://www.mors.org/Events/Special-Meetings/Cyberspace-Wargaming.

There will also be a game night at the DoubleTree by Hilton McLean Tysons in place of the traditional special meeting social. This event will allow attendees not only the opportunity to socialize but also games and techniques in a fun, inviting setting to add to their repertoire. The game night will be $15. Game night attendees will be provided light fare and a cash bar is available as well. Attendees can expect a number of wargames at various levels. These will include single play/opponent games as well team or multiplayer games.

For further information and registration, go to MORS website.

PAXsims

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A new (German) Eurogame entitled Manitoba is drawing fire in Canada for its depiction of First Nations culture. CBC News reports:

A totem pole in Manitoba? German board game accused of stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous people

Board game called Manitoba features depictions that are inaccurate and offensive, game enthusiast says

“Manitoba” is a product of German company DLP Games. Some Manitobans are upset about the game’s stereotypical ideas of Indigenous people. (DLP Games )

A German board game called Manitoba is drawing a lot of criticism for the way it portrays the culture of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

The game, called Manitoba, is a product of DLP Games.

“This game is set in the Canadian province of Manitoba with its green hills and majestic mountains, large lakes, endless prairies and forests,” the English-language version of the game’s instructions state.

“It deals with the life of the inhabitants in harmony with the different seasons and the capriciousness of nature.

“Players represent different clans of the Cree Indians, taking care of the material progress as well as of the spiritual development of the clan. At the end of autumn, all clans finally come together to determine the new chief from the clan that has progressed the furthest!”

Ross says the game’s artwork is problematic as it’s an inaccurate depiction of indigenous peoples in Manitoba. (DLP Games )

The artwork accompanying the game includes images of a totem pole and other imagery that is not part the cultures of Manitoba’s Indigenous Peoples.

The game has drawn heavy criticism on the BoardGameGeek online forum.

Governor General’s Award-winning writer Ian Ross is an Indigenous board game enthusiast and the founder of the Winnipeg Board Game Club.

Though the artwork is problematic, what some people have found most troubling is the game’s portrayal of Indigenous spirituality, he told CBC News.

“I think for some people, that’s the real sticky point, the thing they find most egregious, is the commodification of our culture,” he said….

You’ll find the full article at the link above.

The issue of cultural representation in boardgames is an interesting and sometimes controversial one, and—time permitting—is something we hope to return to with a broader discussion at PAXsims in the future. If you might want to contribute, let us know.

PAXsims

Jentery Sayers is teaching a course on “paper computers” —board games—at the University of Victoria this fall:

This seminar follows that low-tech disposition. We’ll survey the pasts of paper computers and their entanglements with literature. We’ll visit Special Collections to study some pertinent media, such as artists’ books, moveable books, machine-woven books, miniatures, cards, boards, and zines. Then you’ll select an “-ism” (e.g., imagism, constructivism, or thingism) and use it to prototype a tabletop game. We’ll discuss the dynamics that bridge aesthetics with mechanics, including how games rehearse legacies of colonialism and capital accumulation. What alternatives exist, and how are they made?

We’ll play some games as we go, and read a smidgen of fiction and history, too.
From week to week, we’ll ground it all in design practices: bookbinding, 3D modelling, fabricating, and playtesting, for example. Various guest speakers will join us. By the end, you should develop a palpable sense of how this becomes that with a computer—but without running culture in the background.

h/t former UVic wargaming club colleague Brian Train

PAXsims

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Continuing with Brian Train references, he is the guest in an excellent recent episode of the Harold on Games podcast.

THIS podcast is singularly composed of an interview with prolific game designer and insurgent provacator, Brian Train. We will discuss the myriad of games he brought with him to ConSimWorld Expo and his future plans.

PAXsims

The dates for the Connections Oz wargaming conference have been confirmed: 10-12 December in the Hatchery at the University of Technology, Sydney. More details here.

PAXsims

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More from Down Under—the Australian Army’s professional development website The Cove contains another quick decision exercise: Takistan Raid.

PAXsims

A recent business article the Financial Post discusses “war game techniques to get you through this age of disruption.” Judging from the image they use to illustrate the piece, some of these involve the use of a sword.

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PAXsims

Patrick Ruestchmann has provided a revised map and player aid for Tim Price’s Earthquake! matrix game. You’ll find the files appended here. Many thanks, Patrick!

PAXsims

In-stride adjudication (Connections 2018 working group report)

Stephen Downes-Martin has pulled together a 187 page (!) report on in-stride adjudication from the papers and discussion presented at the Connections US 2018 conference. You can download it here.

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WATU wargame report

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On September 8, volunteers from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, and PAXsims paid homage to what may have been the most consequential wargaming of World War Two: the work of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit. WATU contributed greatly the development of anti-submarine tactics, and also taught more than five thousand British and allied escort officers during the war. Most of those wargamers were women too.

The event was hosted by the Western Approaches war museum and held in the map room of the wartime headquarters of Western Approaches Command: an underground bunker beneath the Exchange Building (Derby House) in Liverpool. During the war, WATU had operated from an upper floor.

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Setting up the plotting map. The screens on the right prevent the escort commanders from seeing the map, except when permitted to peek through small visors. Red filters in these prevent them from seeing the U-boat tracks.

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The plot viewed through the visor. U-boat tracks are not visible.

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The screen from above, with the tables for the escort commanders beyond.

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Nefarious U-boat commander Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK/PAXsims).

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Some of our lovely simulated Wrens.

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Pre-game briefing.

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The WATU wargame underway. The convoy, escort, and U-boat positions are being plotted on the floor, while escort commanders plan their next moves beyond the screens.

The game started with U-305 (U1 on the plotting floor, commanded by your scribe) having penetrated the escort screen on the surface at night, and attacking from within the convoy. One ship went down, and I ordered my vessel to submerge to periscope depth and to turn slightly to run under the convoy.

Meanwhile, U-501 (U2) approached on the surface from outside the screen, hoping to attack while the escorts were distracted.

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The U-boat commanders smile as they celebrate their first sinking of a merchantman.

Alas—or fortunately, depending on your perspective—it wasn’t to be so. As soon as the first ship was hit HMCS Ottawa (L3) made a high-speed dash into the convoy, and ran straight into the still-submerging U1, which it had not yet spotted. The damage was enough to force U1 to the surface. I ordered my submarine to run close alongside the Canadian destroyer, hoping her guns would not be able to depress sufficiently to engage my much smaller vessel. My own 88mm deck gun fired into the escort at close range, and a spread of my remaining bow torpedos damaged HMS Starling (L1) as she approached to assist. However, soon U1 began to sink. I ordered the Enigma machine and codebooks thrown overboard, and we abandoned ship.

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Image of a WWII WATU wargame in progress. Note the plotting of the convoy, escorts, and submarines on the floor, as well as the screens.

 

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WWII WATU wargame in progress. Wrens point out ships and current situation for officers viewing through screen.

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Meanwhile, U2 fired a spread of torpedos into the convoy, sinking one freighter. Its lookouts failed to notice a Royal Navy destroyer (O1) bearing down her through the dark night until it was almost too late, however. Fregattenkapitän Mouat ordered a crash dive, which was soon followed by the thunderous explosions of depth charges overhead. With a drive shaft damaged, the wily Moaut ordered that oil be vented and rubbish discharged through the torpedo tubes to suggest his vessel had been destroyed. HMS Vanquisher was having none of that, however, and continued to drop depth charges. U2 would eventually be sunk with all hands.

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U1 sunk, U2 under attack.

As this was ongoing, U3 (Brynen) approached from the front of the convoy submerged, while U4 (Mouat) proceeded on the surface well ahead of the convoy to report its location to Kriegsmarine headquarters back in Germany. These transmissions were picked up by HF/DF (High Frequency Direction Finding), and minutes later U4 itself was spotted on radar by HMCS Orillia (P1). Mouat turned slowly, and then proceeded south at top speed, hoping thereby to draw off escorts before eventually submerging and doubling back.

U3 continued to creep forward, until it was within 1500 yards of the convoy. It then fired two pairs of torpedoes from its forward tubes. A short while later hydrophones reported more explosions as two merchantmen were hit. The wolfpack had now sunk four ships in the convoy, and damaged two escorts.

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The plot. U4 (bottom) has just begun its dash south with escorts in pursuit. The white markers indicate the depth charges dropped by O1 on U2, while U3 is nearby, having just fired torpedoes and turned.

…and there we had to finish as the day came to an end.

We all had a terrific time, and the 130 visitors who passed through the museum while the wargame was underway seemed to find it all very interesting too. It was particularly gratifying to meet with the daughter and granddaughter of wartime wargaming WATU Wren officer Laura Janet Howes.

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The daughter (right) of WRNS officer Laura Janet Howes poses with a card summarizing her mother’s wartime career.

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The commander of HMS Vanquisher points to the last resting place of U2.

Enormous thanks are due to the Dstl team that made this all happen, and especially Sally David and Paul Strong. Emma Stringfellow (Big Heritage) and the rest of the Western Approaches museum staff were terrific hosts, happily putting up with twenty or so of us moving things around, talking loudly, and even playing ASDIC noises and dive alarms. The screens produced by Alfred Chow (Maker of Things) were perfect for the task. Steve Cowan recreated the HMS Tactician/WATU crest, which was emblazoned on the shirts of many of the wargaming crew, and on commemorative mugs available in the Western Approaches gift shop.

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I would like to personally thank Cmdr Jeffrey McRae (Royal Canadian Navy) from joining with the Royal Navy in marking the occasion, and taking on the role of an escort commander (HMCS St Croix). Some five hundred Canadian naval officers were among those trained by WATU during WWII, and a similar tactical training unit (modelled on WATU) was established in Halifax in 1943.IMG_0297 copy.jpg

The WATU wargame is an excellent tool for teaching about wargaming, operations, research, the Battle of the Atlantic, and the contribution of women during WWII. Visitor after visitor expressed how interesting it was, and how analysis, gaming, and outthinking an opponent all converged in the kind of work WATU did. I certainly hope this becomes at annual event at the museum, and the Dstl and RN volunteers who made it happen are able to organize similar events elsewhere in the UK.

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The Dstl/RN/RCN/Defence Academy/PAXsims crew, including nefarious U-boat captains Mouat and Brynen.

Finally, if you are in or visiting the Liverpool area, go and see the Western Approaches museum (where, for a limited time, you can get your very own HMS Tactician/WATU mug). They’ve done a terrific job rennovating the facility, and it is well worth a trip.

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RN officers demonstrate appropriate protocol for carrying a simulated Wren.

Registration is now open for the Serious Games Forum 2018

SGF-advert2_edited-2.pngRegistration is now open for the Serious Games Forum 2018, to be held at the War College in Paris on 3 December 2018.

This free event will bring together military, civil and academic professionals using Serious Games to share their ideas and experience. Debates with our wide range of speakers will give you a better understanding of theses tools.

Designers and users of theses games can take this opportunity to expand their network and share ideas.

Find out more about Serious Games through practice. Experiment by yourself a wide range of Serious Games on many subjects, from security and crisis management to business strategy.

Connections UK 2018 conference report

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Photo credit: Anthony Sharman (@Ant_Sharman)

The Connections UK 2018 professional wargaming conference concluded yesterday, and a very excellent conference it was. The event was hosted by the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and cosponsored by the Defence Academy of the UK and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Around two hundred people were in attendance this year, making it the second largest conference of its kind ever (with Connections US having taken first spot earlier this year).

Tuesday, 4 September

As is tradition with Connections UK, the first day gave participants the option of either attending a day-long introduction to wargaming for beginners course (ably taught by Tom Mouat and Jerry Elsmore), or taking part in a megagame designed by Jim Wallman. The former included hands-on experience with Battlegroup Krieggspiel, a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) game, and a matrix game. The megagame was A Green and Pleasant Land, examining British national resilience in the face of mounting crisis and a hostile adversary employing the tools of hybrid warfare.

Together with about a hundred others, I opted for the megagame, facilitating the game as  Control for the Red Cell—a team of nefarious simulated Russians trying to destabilize the UK against the backdrop of a crisis in the Baltics and NATO mobilization. Led by the nefarious Phil Pournelle (doing his best Vladimir Putin imitation), the Read Team used social media to aggravate political tensions, secretly funded alt-right demonstrations, and engaged in sporadic arson attacks—hoping to overwhelm the overstretched British police. There was also quite a lot of hacking, including an extraction of interesting financial information from the Trump Organization, and sabotage of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) used for maritime navigation.

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The British Prime Minister speaks to the cabinet and other officials. Photo credit: Jim Wallman/Stone Paper Scissors.

The vast majority of players assumed the roles of various British government departments and officials, trying to deal with a plethora of incidents. Most incidents were simply random events that had nothing to do with Russia, but even those that were connected were rarely linked back to Moscow.

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Russian plotting underway.

There were, however, some exceptions. A GRU agent who had been hiring neo-Nazi thugs to torch British mosques was arrested by the Metropolitan Police. Even more serious, a Spetsnaz mission to sabotage Royal Navy vessels in Portsmouth was detected and blocked—ultimately resulting in the arrest of the Russian special forces. This occurred amid growing military tensions in Europe. When the British cabinet twice relocated to a secure bunker outside London—once as a continuity-of-govermnment drill, the second time in response to the discovery of Russian listening devices at Number 10 and the cabinet offices—Russia grew fearful that this might be early warning of an impending NATO first strike.

A last-minute telephone call between the Russian President and British Prime Minister (which hilariously took 10 minutes to arrange because of poor cell reception, even though the principals were in adjacent rooms) deescalated things. British mobilization went well, and the North Atlantic Council seemed near-unanimous on supporting an Article Five response in support of their Baltic allies—although the British PM seems to have offered to pull back forces, which was seen by the Russians as a major accomplishment. Bob Cordery offers his own perspective on his blog Wargaming Miscellany:

As tensions rose, so did the level of problems that we had to find solutions to. The discovery of listening devices in the Cabinet Room and the arrest of a four-man team of Speznatz in Portsmouth precipitated matters, and we – the Cabinet – moved to the secure bunker, along with representatives (usually the PUS) of the ministerial teams. I think that I shocked my Cabinet colleagues when I ordered that all means – however extreme they might be – should be used to extract information from the captured Russian Special Forces Team. I asked that it be done by contractors and that it should take place outside the UK. I then told the Cabinet that this was a decision that I alone would make, and that they bore no responsibility for it.

As events moved close and closer to the possibility of open conflict with the Russians, I received a message that the President of the Russian Federation wished to speak to me on the telephone. There then proceeded to be what can only be described as a farcical situation. Although he was physically in an adjoining room, the phone link just would not work properly. At one point I said ‘Hello, Vladimir’ … and was greeted by a recorded announcement that the person I wanted to talk to was not available and that I could leave a message after the tone! (One hopes that in real-life, this could not happen!)

Once we did manage to talk, we were able to de-escalate the situation, with both sides agreeing to pull back … although I suspect that we withdrew more than they did! At this point the game ended, and we moved to the de-brief.

A Green and Distant Land was not intended to be a hyper-realistic simulation of British emergency preparedness. Rather, it was intended as a conference ice-breaker, an opportunity to network, and a demonstrator for various gaming techniques. This it did very well, and there were several game elements that I am likely to steal borrow from Jim in my own future game designs.

Wednesday, 5 September

Day 2 of Connections UK—and the first day of conference panels and presentations—started off with a formal welcome from Wyn Bowen, Head of the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. Conference coorganizer Graham Longley-Brown (LBS) then outlined the conference programme..

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Graham Longley-Brown discusses the wargaming process and the structure of the conference.

Graham noted that this had been designed around the cycle of wargaming, as identified in the UK Defence Wargaming Handbook:

  • Initiation
  • Design (to a purpose)
  • Development (and playtesting)
  • Execution (and facilitation)
  • Validation
  • Refinement

He noted a number of areas in which he felt that wargame project management and validation was much more advanced in the US than in the UK and elsewhere.

This was followed by a session on wargame design, introduced and chaired by Matt Caffrey (US Air Force Material Command).

Phil Sabin (King’s College London) talked about dilemmas and trade-offs in wargame design. These include:

  • the dilemmas faced by designers (rigid vs open rules/adjudication, open vs hidden information, detail vs abstraction, complexity vs accessibility, manual vs digital, and luck vs skill);
  • the need to capture real world-dilemmas (such as resource scarcity and prioritization, attack vs defence, concentration vs dispersion, efficiency vs surprise/unpredictability, boldness vs caution, inherent cost-benefit trade-offs, cooperation vs self-interest);
  • incorporating these into a game by providing players with choices and options.

Dilemmas may be rooted in incalculability (the sheer number of possible approaches), uncertainty (for example, hidden information), and incommensurability. Wargames also have the potential to reveal previously unidentified dilemmas and elicit creative approaches.

Game designer Brian Train spoke on game design as a form of journalism, focusing on “news games.” He noted that while the scholarly literature on such games has largely focused on digital games, there is a rich tradition of manual games that have editorial/advocacy/social awareness or documentary/educational/informative content. His earliest example was a 1791 roll-and-move game of the French Revolution. Another example was Occupation, a game that was secretly produced during WWII on German-occupied Jersey. Today, TerrorBull Gamesis well-known for its satirical and educational games. Brian also discussed the Strategy & Tactics model of games coupled with accompanying magazine analysis. Finally, Brian addressed the rapid development of games to explore contemporary or ongoing conflicts.

Anna Nettleship addressed challenges in wargame design. In historical games, she noted, one must abstract real events in-game mechanics, and to do so in a way that remains appropriately playable for the players. The game design, rules, and supporting material must communicate effectively with the player. The game system should incentivize appropriate play. She stressed the importance of intensive playtesting in identifying weaknesses and fixing them. Regarding future conflict simulations, she noted the importance of linking the game design to design objectives. Players need to think how they can best get players to act within their game roles.

During subsequent discussion, several audience members raised the challenges of wargaming future conflict, including hybrid warfare. Phil highlighted the need to couple the lessons of the past with an appreciation of the possible effects of technological change as well as leaving scope for innovative play by players. Brian stressed the importance of exploring how different actors might exploit various mechanisms of hybrid warfare, even if the game is necessarily speculative. Anna and Phil also noted that wargames can be useful in telling us what might happen, even if there can be no certainty the games are indeed predictive.

The next series of presentations, chaired by Graham Longley-Brown, examined wargame development.

Col Richard Taylor (British Army) and Nigel Paling (UK MoD) spoke on analysis in experimentation wargaming, looking at the EX SPECTACULAR STRIKE wargames. These examined how the new British STRIKE brigade might operate in contemporary European high-intensity operations. They emphasized that capabilities cannot be characterized solely in terms of modelling and simulation of equipment, since much depends on the development of innovative tactics and approaches. A bespoke wargame is thus needed, rather than simply using existing collective training systems, and an integrated analysis and experimentation “campaign” is required. The Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT) was used to explore the relevant questions, using a standard defence scenario. The STRIKE! Manual game was developed by Dstl and employed to explore higher resolution assessment of tactics and alternative approaches. The games highlighted the asymmetric value of unpredictability, that speed of assembly allows you to fight faster, that multi-domain integration is key, dispersion and “swarming” can enhance tempo, and that self-reliance enhances reach and flexibility, but is dependent on austerity, mobility, and accuracy. They noted that accurate assumptions are critical for credible outputs, wargaming offers insight into the human element, and that a “safe to fail” environment is useful—since one often learns the most from “losing.”

Nick Reynolds spoke about developing the KCL crisis simulation, an annual weekend crisis game run by KCL students. Many participants had significant prior professional experience in defence and related areas. The simulation has tried to move beyond a model UN negotiation model, and enhance the wargaming and other simulated operational elements. Free kriegsspiel adjudication was used. His comments on the dangers of “breaking immersion” during the game. He felt that free kriegsspiel in inappropriate for complex operations (although I’m not sure I entirely agree—adjudication in Brynania is largely free kriegsspiel, and I would argue that it especially well-suited for complex POL-MIL games). Key to his presentation was the importance of managing the flow of information and game decisions in a large, complex game. He also noted the importance of signally public relations, political, legal, and similar non-tangible considerations and constraints, in order the prevent the game from devolving into an unrealistic hard power “hyper-realism”

Dave Manley (UK MoD) reviewed the High Northseries of nested games. The project grew out of Connections UK 2017 conference, and the interest in future arctic issues by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. A matrix game was used to explore strategic and political issues, RCAT was used to explore operational issues, and the ASUW game was used to explore tactical issues. He helpfully identified a series of risks, difficulties, and mitigations. One was the necessity of keeping players on (analytical) target, which was mitigated by the game controller nudging and “critical thinker” SME comments. Another was unexpected flow-down factors, where a higher-level game would introduce issues and challenges that needed to then be incorporated into a lower-level game. Free kriegsspiel seemed most appropriate for the higher level game, becoming more rigid in the more operational and tactical games. One observation that came out of the games was the unlikelihood of open military confrontation in the High Arctic.

Highly regarded wargame designer (and former CIA instructor) Volko Ruhnke spoke about model calibration. He started with the challenge of building harpsichords at home to highlight how to develop a finely tuned instrument, noting that tuning is a different skill than both design and play. He differentiated between calibration (model outputs are useful for intended purpose) and accuracy(the model reflects real-world dynamics)—essentially, processes of validation and verification. He ran a quick live-action game that was, in essence, a pandemic model.

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Volko Ruhnke discusses wargame calibration.

He then used this to highlight how, by changing the rules and rates and tweaking the model, rather different outcomes would result. There is value in “bracketing the target” by making adjustments that both overrepresent and underrepresent the desired effect, thereby enabling one to narrow down the required changes. In response to questions, he noted that calibration occurs throughout the design and playtest process.

The broader panel discussion addressed how to engage involuntary players who did not choose to, and may not want to, play—for example, military personnel assigned to a wargame. Questions were raised about how to recruit appropriate players, especially for the Red cell in an analytical game. Panelists highlighted the value of innovative and diverse opponents. In concluding comments, Graham underscored the importance of scenario development, and warned against pre-scripted scenarios that heavily constrain player choice

Lunch followed, and the first session of the Connections Game Fair, with twenty or so games on display,. These ranged from a Dstl hybrid warfare matrix game and their STRIKE! battlegroup board game, to a Swedish National Defence University operational-level game, through to Brian Train’s Second Lebanon War and a game on Future Artillery Concepts. A second session followed in the evening.

Juliette Le Ménahèze, Harrison Brewer, and I ran two games of We Are Coming, Ninevehour wargame-in-development of Iraqi operations against Daesh in West Mosul (2017). I’ll post a full update on the playtesting to PAXsims in the near future.

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Demonstrating Playing We Are Coming, Nineveh.. Photo credit: Harrison Brewer.

Unfortunately, because I was busy overseeing bitter street-fighting in West Mosul, I did not get much of a chance to look at the others.

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Mike Young demonstrates the STRIKE! wargame from Dstl. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

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James Halstead and Fog on the Somme. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

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Brian Train demonstrates Second Lebanon War. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

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Tom Mouat’s Section Commander. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

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The WATU wargame was also on display (photo credits: Katie Bramwell).

The other activity of Day 2 was a keynote address by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train.

Volko spoke about wargames and systems thinking, reprising many of his comments from Connections US in July. He identified various sources of analytical surprise—deliberate hostile action, tectonic shifts, and system shifts in which the dynamics of complex systems interact to produce major change. From this he went on to explore the challenge of modelling complex systems, noting both that such models are inevitably simplified and full or errors—yet also essential to make some sense of the world. He emphasized the importance of harvesting the wisdom of crowds and incorporating diversity. Wargames capture a particular model, often in a way that is accessible to players. Rigid games have very explicit model specification but may be too bound. Open games incorporate opportunities for innovation, but the model is often much less clear. Matrix games are a hybrid approach, which incorporate flexibility and leverage the expertise of participants. Computation and agent-based modelling can offer considerable insight into outcomes of complex systems, but the underlying model may not be accessible (and the user interface may be very important to allow the user to know what is going on). Volko also offered advice on game development, much of which hinged on the importance of repeated playtesting and encouraging feedback and critique.

A stimulating on-stage conversation between Volko and Brian followed, examining the question of creativity. Martin Mull once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” making the point that you also need to listen to and experience music. Brian amended this to remark that “Game design is like dancing through architecture,” allowing one to experience the flow and form—although one also needs to game too. Brian’s usual design process isn’t always linear, but it is iterative. He has to have some initial interest. There then follows a period of incubation, which is followed in turn by moments of insight and inspiration during which the game subsystems develop. There are usually lots of ideas, and over time the bad ones get thrown out and the good ones are refined. Novelty is something which always attracts him to game topics and designs. At the same time, designs often borrow and adapt mechanisms pioneered by others in other games. Brian admitted to a certain degree of imposter syndrome at times, feeling that his work is less elegant or otherwise not as good as games designed by others (a remarkable admission from one of the world’s leading and most innovative wargame designers). The question and answer period followed, much of which focused on their favourite game systems and mechanics. It was a terrific session and format.

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Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train. Picture credit: Tom Mouat.

Thursday, 6 September

The final day began with a panel on wargame execution, chaired by Howard Body (UK MoD).

Aggie Hirst (KCL) spoke about play as pedagogy, examining the use of wargames for educational and training purposes in the US DoD military. She emphasized three main themes: play as a pedagogical tool, the role of immersion and player agency, and the value of critical thinking and “dialectical play.” She raised the question of whether immersion can interfere with learning, to the extent that reflexivity is undermined and players become objects, rather than subjects, of the game. It is important to use games to teach how to think, not what to think. This may involve punctuating immersion, thereby ensuring that players are engaged in a dialectic with the game. Her research will ultimately be published as a book (to which I am certainly looking forward).

Next, Erik Elgersma (FrieslandCampina) spoke on wargaming as a hidden driver behind cheese market victories, highlighting the value of business wargamimg, whereby potential commercial courses of action are stress-tested. This approach serves as a team-building process that ultimately enhances capabilities. Participants start by playing Red, outlining the objectives and strategy of a commercial competitor. Having done this, they develop and then test their own plans from a Blue perspective. He stressed the importance of recruiting a strong project leader, choosing a suitable topic/scenario, ensuring commitment and support from principals, and ensuring the wargame has a clear focus. Good timing is important—wargames can be premature or stale, with limited shelf-life. A good team of participants is important, as is a good organizational culture in the room that encourages everyone to voice ideas. Good preparations (such as suitable pre-reads) pay off. Analysis and reporting must be clear, and not ambiguous. The findings need to be effectively integrated into business strategy. Finally, he stressed communications, communications, communications.

Erik also mentioned how things can go off the rails, through poor representation of reality, hidden (political or organizational) agendas, or a mismatch between the game and the authority of participants. In the later question period, he noted that cheese marketeers are as vulnerable to mirror-image biases as any other analysts or game participants.

Karl Selke (Group W) presented on empowering defense wargaming through automation, focusing on the Standard Wargame Integration Facilitation Toolkit (SWIFT) produced for the US Department of Defense. The software captures all aspects of the game. A user builds their game space (map/board), including layers and overlays, and builds their units and assets. The game can be adjudicated externally or can be automated. He discussed some of the expectations and challenges when developing and promoting technological supports and solutions.\

Appropriately enough, digital wargame and wargame support tools were on display during the coffee and lunch breaks. These included SWIFT, as well as a Dstl demonstration on adapting augmented and virtual reality tools; NSC and iNet; Conductrr and TeamXp; and several games from Slitherine and Matrix Games.

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Using SWIFT to display, document, and facilitate a wargame.

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VR tools in wargaming.

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Conductrr on display.

The next panel, chaired by Brian Train, explored wargame validation.

LtCol Neil Stevens (British Army) and LtCol Ranald Shepherd (British Army) discussed selecting, playing, and assessing a commercial off-the-shelf wargame (in this case, A Distant Plain). They discussed how to convince the players that a COTS wargame was worth their time. After playing, participants reported that A Distant Plain had given them better appreciation of the broader context of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan (4.2/5.0 in a post-game survey), although it was somewhat less effective in offering insight into COIN warfare (3.78). Positive effects were noted in terms of practicing risk-taking, decision-making, and collaboration. Overall the exercise scored high (4.67) as an overall experience, both in terms of learning and enjoyment. 

John Curry (History of Wargaming Project) talked about wargaming and reality: a case study of the Ukrainian crisis, 2014-present. He questioned whether wargames had always had the positive effects reported. The interwar US Naval War College wargames, for example, were rather different from the way naval engagements were actually fought during WWII. He also quickly reviewed several wargames on modern warfare used for training during the Cold War era. There was not only significant variation in their assumptions, but also were wrong in some respects, or missed key issues (such as Soviet supply constraints).

He used such observations as a preamble to examination the Ukrainian war. Fighting has highlighted the value of UAVs and indirect fire. MANPADS proved effective against rotary assets. Tanks remained powerful on the battlefield. Matrix games, he suggested, had limits in anticipating black swans and future developments such as encountered in the Ukraine. Some pre-crisis board games (such as Millennium Wars: Ukraine) placed too much emphasis on large formations, or otherwise failed to predict important developments. Digital games often made inappropriate assumptions too. John stressed that wargaming does have value, but that appropriate caution needed to be exercised in using them to anticipate future military challenges. In response to questions, he called for more research on what games proved prescient, and why. In a follow-up question I asked how we avoid demonstrating the value or weakness of wargaming by cherry-picking vignettes. He (quite rightly) responded by stressing the need to more systematically survey wargame outputs.

Another comment noted that the benefit of wargames is also the cognitive development it encourages, quite apart from tactical/operational/strategic insights. It was also noted by panelists that wargames may contribute to networking and agility that proves of value when the unexpected is encountered. Also, the problem in some cases may be one of how game lessons are interpreted, (mis)applied, or missed, rather than the game itself.

Phil Pournelle (LTSG) looked at refinement of wargames throughout the wargaming lifecycle. He emphasized that game methodology needs to be matched to the questions being asked, and what the designer or sponsor thinks about a game is not always what the audience (or the sponsors’ boss) thinks. Games need to be supported by a joint planning process prior to the game, and teams will have to adjust plans as they interact with adversaries. Insights from the game should then inform refinement of the next game. He also discussed capturing lessons, through rapporteurs, surveys, hotwash, and structured analytical techniques—and the strengths and weaknesses of each. He noted the particular value of critical event analysis to understand game trajectories and their drivers. These critical events may generate questions for future examination.

Phil also discussed the Defense Wargame Alignment Group (DWAG) in the US Department of Defense, including the role of the Wargame Incentive Fund and Wargame Repository. In subsequent discussion, Phil stressed the importance of playing games widely to develop wargame design skills, and to acquaint oneself with the various techniques, methods, and game mechanics that are available.

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Phil Pournelle highlights the strengths and weaknesses of different wargaming approaches.

LtGen Sir David Capewell offered a (retired) senior officer’s perspective in a presentation on wargaming to win in a volatile future. He stressed the value of wargaming as a method for fostering critical thinking skills. He argued that we are in the midst of a new and emerging geostrategic environment, characterized by the emergence of new issues and dynamics. He underscored the changing information environment, the challenged posed by (volatile) adversaries, and the “hybrid conundrum” whereby it is difficult to know how to respond to irregular challenges. He suggested that it was difficult to find Red Team players that could effectively represent this.

There was much here I agreed with, and it was good to have such a senior (former) officer speaking to the group to offer a wargame-user’s perspective. However, it is also important to move beyond catch-phrases. Some aspects of change, it seemed to me, were overemphasized: geopolitics has always been complex and dynamic, especially outside the Cold War paradigm. Much of what is termed hybrid warfare is composed of tools and approaches that have been in use for decades, even centuries. I am not suggesting that there is nothing new—there absolutely is. However, what is key is to determine what has changed (irregular actors using UAVs) and what has not (massed artillery fires kill infantry), in a context of both continuity and innovation.

For me, the most important contribution of the presentation was to underscore the need for wargame designers to wrap their games in appropriate jargon if they are to attract the attention of some senior decision-makers.

In the subsequent question and answer, Sir Capewell was asked if he had ever changed his mind as the result of a wargame. He said he had. In the case of Afghanistan, wargames suggested that troops could be disengaged quickly and quietly at night, rather than having to first reinforce forward. He also pointed to the 2014 West Africa Ebola crisis, where wargaming highlighted the importance of cultural practice (notably body-washing and handling) in limiting the spread of disease. I found this a somewhat interesting response, given that this was understood by many public health professionals well before the epidemic, the issue being noted (for example) in humanitarian guidance sponsored by the UK Department for International Development in 2002. This suggests that planning wargames for senior staff may actually serve an educational function too, flagging issues that they might otherwise fail to appreciate from briefing or other materials.

After lunch, a panel chaired by Colin Marston (Dstl) discussed various issues of wargame analysis. I was one of the panelists, so my notes here are a little more hurried.

LtCol Rob Burks (US Army) spoke on US/DoD best and worst practices. He warned of the challenges posed by wargame teams without the necessary skills, unclear objectives and questions, and weak data collection and management plans. He stressed the importance of dialogue with the sponsor to clarify objectives and key questions, noting that while you can’t always get what you want, if you try sometime you find you get what you need. He stressed the importance of playtesting—and not only playtesting the game design, but the data collection and analysis plan too. Knowing who the players are is important, before the game design is finished. He also noted that games are at risk of being sidetracked, and that contingency plans and parking lots can be useful tools in game facilitation (“let’s park that issue now and get back to it later” so that you can focus on main issue).

Peter Williams (DST) addressed designing analytical games with a view to successful data capture, management, and analysis. He outlined a holistic wargame design process, whereby understanding the client problem leads on to designing an appropriate wargame, collecting good data, undertaking good analysis to produce good answers. He emphasized the value of break-point analysis, which seeks to determine where and when the capability of force X is likely to work, and why—and the point at which it is no longer effective. A wargame needs to enable smart people to be smart (and innovative and devious),  and the tools need to be present in the game to allow them to do this.

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Peter Williams discusses the holistic wargame process/

I delivered my report on the DIRE STRAITS experiment from Connections 2017, addressing cognitive bias in wargame analysis (slides here). This was similar to the presentation I made in July at the Connections US conference. Our findings suggested that different analytical teams assigned to report on the same wargame might reach very different conclusions. Various types of cognitive bias (such as confirmation bias) might be responsible for this. The implication was that greater attention needed to be paid to how game analysis was developed and aggregated, including the possible use of a Red Team analytical cell to provide a possibly alternative perspective on the findings.

The next session of the conference was an informal panel discussion on wargame facilitation, featuring Tom Mouat, Jim Wallman, and Paul Strong (Dstl), and myself. Various questions had been gathered from conference participants over the past two days, and Graham-Longley Brown acted as questioner. Some important issues were raised, including dealing with difficult players, the dangers of assuming a too-active role, and various mistakes we had made in the past.

Finally, it fell to Phil Sabin (KCL) to make some concluding comments on the conference. The main thrust of his remarks was the need to increase the diversity of the wargaming community, in terms of gender, ethnic and national background, age, and experience. Connections UK did very well in attracting an international audience, with participants from 19 different countries. Judging from the sixty or so people who opted for the introduction to wargaming course, the conference also did well at bringing newcomers into the community. Half or more of those in attendance were not hobby wargamers, highlighting how effective Connections UK has been in expanding the community beyond the usual gaming geeks.

Regarding gender, however, there remains considerable room for improvement. By my rough estimate, around 10-15% of participants (and fewer than 5% of presenters and panel chairs) were women—a somewhat lower proportion than at American version. This is, of course, an issue we have discussed before at PAXsims, and to the organizers’ credit the issue was raised and recognized repeatedly. Half of the PAXsims contingent (comprising myself and Tom Mouat, plus research associates Harrison Brewer, Kia Kouyoumjian, and Juliette Le Ménahèze, and volunteer Keiko Ivinson) were women, so I would like to think we made our own modest contribution in that direction.

Overall, it was a very productive and stimulating three days. Having attended Connections US in July, it is interesting to reflect on the subtle differences between the two events. The focus and composition of the latter can vary a little depending on where it is held, but in general there are significantly more serving military folks with wargaming somewhere in their job descriptions or on their to-do lists. Connections UK seems to attract more with POL-MIL interests, as well as gamers who have some position or interaction with government but aren’t necessarily doing much official gaming. Given that US defence expenditures are around 13 times higher than those of Britain, that is to be expected. There is also a certain eccentricity to many British (hobby) wargamers that affects the official side too—I’m not sure that the UK megagame opener would necessarily translate well to a US professional setting. The US conference often delves deeper into issues of methodology (in part because of the efforts of people like Yuna Wong and Stephen Downes-Martin to deepen the intellectual and research foundations of wargaming). However, many UK (and European) wargamers are operating in more austere resource environments, and in some cases things that work in well-funded US wargames may be less feasible elsewhere in NATO and beyond.

 

UPDATE: the conference presentations are all now available at the Connections UK website.

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