PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

CATALEXIT matrix game

CATALEXIT.jpgIn his report on the recent Connections Netherlands 2017 wargaming conference, Tom Mouat mentioned the CATALEXIT matrix game development by conference participants during a matrix game design workshop.

This is a Matrix Game intended to explore the issues and options surrounding the 2017 Spanish constitutional crisis, in the run up to Regional Elections on 21 December 17 to appoint a new Catalan Parliament following the suspension of the previous Parliament . It is the product of only a few hours exploratory game design taken from the Connections Netherlands 20 17 conference on 14 Nov 2017.

You’ll find the rules and briefing materials here.

Connections NL 2017 AAR

PAXsims’s very own Tom Moaut recently attended the Connections Netherlands 2017 professional wargaming conference, and has written up the following report. You’ll also find some slides from the event here, courtesy of Hans Steensma.


 

This year I had the privilege of being invited to the Connections Netherlands conference, which took place on 13 and 14 Nov 17 at Fort 1881 in the Hook of Holland on Day 1 and in the TNO Defence and Security facility in Soesterberg on Day 2. The whole conference was in English for the benefit of international visitors (!).

The custom for Connections NL is to hold their conferences at one of the historic forts that dot the country. Fort 1881 is housed in the former armoured fortress in Hoek van Holland. Originally built in the New Waterway to defend the Rotterdam region, the building dates from 1881. The fortress is of brick construction, featuring over 3km of galleries, passages and stairs, with a complex and sophisticated system for managing the sea water, tides, drinking water and effluent in the depths of the fortification. The fresh water facilities are still operating so well that there are plans to use the 22,000 litres in the reservoir to make their own beer. The fortress is well maintained and the tour we had was fascinating, especially the two dovecotes dedicated to communication with Rotterdam and The Hague.

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The Conference had about 50 international delegates and was sponsored by SAGANET, the Dutch association for simulation and gaming professionals (not to be confused with SAGANet, a science based outreach programme based on the works and ideals of the astronomer Carl Sagan).

The conference was a mix of presentations and live gaming, with the presentations given in one of the larger chambers situated under the position of one of the main batteries, and with the gaming sessions in one of the barrack rooms.

The conference opened with a keynote presentation from Major Tom Mouat, the Directing Staff Officer for Simulation and Modelling from the Defence Academy of the UK. Since that is me, I find it a little awkward to report on my own presentation – but I’ll try! I covered the characteristics of successful wargames while deciding to avoid the trap of trying to define “wargaming”. Most of this was taken from the recently published UK Defence Wargaming Handbook (I must admit to feeling a little strange to actually be quoting “doctrine”, but it is actually useful). I covered a few of the recent initiatives that are a result of efforts to address the UK government decision making shortcomings identified in the Iraq Enquiry, but devoted most of my time to talking about Matrix Games and the evidence for the superiority of group estimation and role-play in predicting the outcome of conflict situations. Since at least some of the organisers were from a scientific research establishment, I felt that it was appropriate…

This was followed by a presentation by Bas Kreuger on the history of wargaming, which included a moment on Rodney, Douglas, Clark and the “breaking of the line” at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 and some interesting detail on the Dutch Warterlinie defensive works.

Jim Wallman then followed this up with possibly the fastest example of a megagame, by taking all the participants into another room, splitting them up into teams representing the state actors in the contemporary Baltic region and playing a representative turn. This was followed by an explanation of the Dire Straits Megagame played at Connections UK 2017 (and to be played again in late February 2018 at McGill University). This certainly got everyone on their feet, moving around and talking to each other and was a great icebreaker.

Then we had an excellent presentation by Ivo de Nooijer (RU Leiden) on “Lijnenspel”; experiential learning using seminar wargaming, for children of about 11 years old. The game was set in Flatland (an excellent way of avoiding emotional entanglements) and dealt with issues of non-linear communication, refugees, negotiation and small-town politics. I found the insight from the game, that children were concerned that many promises were made in the simulation but few were honoured, and they wanted to know “how adults solved the problem” (!), to be absolutely fascinating. The goals of the game were to demonstrate that team effectiveness is determined by individuals; to focus attention on the “us vs them” debate, to provide an understanding of the role of elections, and of the role of a national government. This looked to be a really interesting game and I look forward to seeing a report about it later.

We then had, what was for me, the most fascinating presentation of the conference: Erik Elgersma (Friesland Campina) giving a presentation about business wargaming. This was a complete revelation as to the level and commitment that the organisation put into the use of wargaming to generate a business advantage. They even include a programme to train successors in order to ensure business continuity and preserve experience and expertise (something sadly lacking in most military communities). The presentation was candid and comprehensive, including detail on strategies tried in the past that didn’t work and what was learned from them. I was quite embarrassed to have to reveal that an organisation making cheese was better organised in wargaming than the British Army.

Diederik Stolk (Goldsworthy Stolk & associates) followed this up with a presentation on rapid wargame development and covering two case studies: The recruiting of students into the Reserve Forces and a training game for senior civil servants and members of the Dutch Parliament. The process, while not necessarily what I would call especially rapid, was refreshing and the products sufficiently different from what I expected, that I was intrigued. The game design looked and felt bespoke to the problem and the audience. The presentation of components, and the delivery of briefing materials and rules as a newspaper, was inspired (and one that I shall exploit!).

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I particularly liked his rule of thumb that a game needs a minimum of 3 playtests to ensure a properly playable game, but a repeatable game to be played with the same audience needs a minimum of 10 playtests. Sadly, the time and resources permitted to the last few wargaming I have been involved with recently did not permit this.

This was followed by an excellent dinner in the Officer Mess building, located outside the fortress.

Following dinner, we played some demonstration games:

  • Baltic Challenge Matrix Game – Tom Mouat/Anja v.d. Hulst
  • Wargaming in the British Army – Jim Wallman
  • MBT (Main Battle Tank), Open Source Intelligence with Wargaming – Swen Stoop
  • Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – introductory board wargame: Bas Kreuger

On Day 2 we reconvened at the TNO facilities in Soesterberg. This was slightly unfortunate as the mix of participants was mostly different from Day 1 and I think that it might make for a better experience overall to have the conference as a 2-Day event at a single location. Whether this is financially viable or practical, of course, is another question.

The day started off with a presentation specifically on matrix gaming by me, followed up with an introductory Matrix game about a Drug Baron in a fictitious (and deliberate caricature) of a South American state. The game is used for language training in the Defence Language School in the UK and is a useful introduction. I was helped in the session by Jim Wallman offering a slightly different perspective, as someone required to deliver such games as part of his business. This reminded me that I need to watch other people deliver matrix games, in order to gain insights as to how they facilitate the games. For too long I have been the lone de-facto “expert” on matrix games in the UK, and I am only too aware that this limits my professional development. Now that these games are being exploited more widely, I need to take the opportunities to benefit from how others solve issues that arise…

Other players, more experienced in matrix Games, ran through with Anja van der Hulst, the Baltic Challenge game.

This was followed after lunch by a design session.

Jim Wallman ran a session in which resilience was examined through the lens of the different political, police, emergency and social actors in a major container port, when faced with a major problem.

I ran a session in which the participants elected to look at the emerging situation in Catalonia: CatalExit! In the few hours we had, we managed to examine the topic, take an initial look at the actors involved, and then run through a few game turns in order to see if there were any structural flaws. The actors we came up with were essentially the Government of Catalonia, the pro-independence “Catalan Republic”, and the pro-Spanish population in the Catalan Region; mirrored by the Spanish Government, the right-wing Spanish Nationalists and the left wing Spanish Socialists. We also added an additional actor representing Russia, promoting destabilisation and extremism.

The game worked pretty well, highlighting the dangers of extremism and the fragile nature of the political crisis. There appeared to us to be a large number of opportunities for dangerous mistakes that could easily lead to extremist violence. Messaging, timing and communication were all very difficult and open to manipulation by all concerned, especially foreign actors like Russia.

Some statistics: Total attendees: 55: (of which 6 were Female (11%):

  •   Government 15
  •   Business 14
  •   Education/Students 4
  •   Organisation 4
  •   Photographer 1
  •   Others 11

Overall the conference was a great success. The location for Day 1 and the quality of the other speakers was simply excellent. I am very grateful for the invitation to attend and I hope to be able to come back next year!

Tom Moaut

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Wargaming NATO Eastern Flank: asking the right questions

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by Natalia Wojtowicz of the NATO Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence. In it, she asks whether wargames focused solely on military response to a Russian conventional attack against NATO might be missing key elements of the picture: alliance resolve, population attitudes, non-kinetic and hybrid operations, crisis management, and conflict mitigation.


Wargaming is largely an intellectual exercise: posing dilemmas before we need to face them in reality. It needs to challenge notions, assumptions and ways of acting. It is about heads making decisions. The problem with NATO Eastern Flank is that we already prepared the answers. We have not given any thought to the question we are posing.[1]

Protracted fighting in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has awaken the contingency planning for collective defence in NATO. Newly discovered sense of urgency has taken us back to thinking of East-West divide and Cold War times. The question which simulations are currently posing is: How to win the war with Russia? The critical assumption made is that there will be escalation and that the war will be decided by military victory.

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In September, the ZAPAD 2017 military exercise involved large numbers of Russian and Belarus forces. Image source: Sputnik.

The build-up in forces, readiness and narratives has been compared to the Cold War levels.[2] That is exactly the case in point for the question in mind: did the Cold War end as we have simulated it? Was it achieved with final battle between East and West? Was it readiness and tactical brilliance that dissolved Soviet Union? No. It crumbled under population resistance, organized social movements and political craft. Looking backwards might not always provide us with way forward – after all, the world took more than one twisted turn in the last 27 years.[3] Looking South and East of NATO to the destabilized zones, clearly the population has been the trigger for the tensions, the target of the operation and the mobilized force used to achieve political aims.

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Canadian soldiers with NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup Latvia coordinate a plan with a Polish tank commander. Image source: Canadian Armed Forces.

RAND Corporation has wargamed the Russian invasion on the Baltics, promptly concluding that NATO would be left with very limited options, all of them bad.[4] The answer based on the military potential can be calculated with a high degree of accuracy. If we treat the confrontation as blue (friendly) versus red (enemy) forces, simple Lancaster equations would suffice. A counterargument against this predictions is that we have seen different use of force in the East, especially with regards to Ukraine. We also saw different decisive force in the East considerably earlier, which rendered the predictions useless – fall of the Soviet Union.

Second consideration should be given to the objective of NATO. It has been founded for the collective security, which enshrines two elements: territory and population. We can safely conclude that NATO territory is not under attack (despite intense wargaming aimed at Northern-Eastern borders). On the other hand, we can also easily enumerate attacks which targeted population. This leads to the need for adaptation: first in thinking, second in the environment we nurture and third in responses we can employ.

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Meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence – Brussels, 8 and 9 November 2017. Image source: NATO.

Think of it as a deck of cards. Even simplest two-player game starts with a goal. For NATO, this goal is to preserve peace by preparing for war. It is of utter importance not to confuse this two. The end is the peace and the mean is the military alliance. The ends and means have been mixed – we are wargaming the military confrontation to prove our peace objectives. This translates to having two cards instead of a deck of 52 – peacetime and all-out war. If you look to the enemy, it is testing this resolve – where is the line in the sand that pushes NATO to war. Can I destabilize the situation without collective response? The example of cyber-attack on Estonia following the removal of Soviet monuments in 2007 has shown Russia is playing their cards on the whole spectrum. NATO has regained its stance, confirming that cyber-attack can be recognized as a trigger for an Article 5 (collective defence). The problem is, this declaration followed in 2014. Adaptation rate was slower than the testing resolve. It also did not offer proportionate response options, which need to be available at first in the wargame, and eventually in reality.

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LOCKED SHIELDS 2017 cyberdefence exercise in Estonia. Image source: NATO CCDCOE.

What has not been recognized is that Ukraine has not fallen prey to all-out conventional attack – what NATO has named as the “hybrid warfare”, the Russian doctrine has labelled as New Generation Warfare. Putting the terminology aside, it has become apparent and urgent that different forces are at play. The question, which needs to be to starting point for NATO Eastern Flank wargaming is: how to prevent war with Russia?

To this question, new cards can be created, bridging the gap between all-peace and all-war. If we retreat to reality as the live laboratory, additional non-kinetic capabilities come to mind and people stand in the way of clinical strike. Our prepared answers do not fit the questions – raised readiness and posturing at the Eastern Flank can represent the cards needed to win the military confrontation with Russia. To prevent the war, we need proportionate response to testing of NATO resolve, means that enshrine population from attacks below Article 5 threshold and most importantly, full-deck-of-cards concept of security. In short, we must ask the right question: how to keep the peace, not how to win the war.


[1] Along several wargaming sessions on NATO platforms and independent simulations, the defence of Eastern Flank has been mostly based on military means, e.g. Potomac Foundation Hegemon Simulator.

[2] This rhetoric of intensified military exercises has been visible in NATO and Russian media. See, for example, this report in the Guardian.

[3] Counting the year 1989/1990 as the decisive time of Soviet Union dissolution.

[4] Reinforcing NATO Deterrence at Eastern Flank, full report available here.

Syria, lies, and video games: Russian MoD edition

Well, the Russian government is at it again—that is, using modified images from video games as part of their propaganda efforts. In this case, they released images of supposed US-ISIS collaboration:

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Except, one of these was actually a modified screenshot from the mobile phone game AC-130 Gunship Simulator:

The other pictures were fakes too, drawn from videos of other incidents. The excellent open source intelligence website Bellingcat has the full story.

This isn’t the first time Russia has done this—as we previously reported at PAXsims, back in May 2016 the Russian Embassy in London used screenshots from the game Command & Conquer: Generals to illustrate false allegations of chemical weapons shipments to the Syrian opposition. (The “image used for illustration purposes” disclaimer on the tweet wasn’t added until AFTER the internet had caught them out.)

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The actual story of ISIS forces withdrawing from Raqqa has been covered very well indeed by the BBC. As for Russian chemical weapons allegations? Well, the recently leaked report of the OPCW-UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism found that Syria was almost certainly responsible for the April 2017 use of sarin nerve gas at Khan Shaykhun. A similar conclusion has also been reached by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 12 November 2017

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

Have any material for us to include in a future edition? Send it on!

PAXsims

DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—recently issued a request for information (DARPA-SN-18-06) for a “Foundations for Strategic Mechanism Design.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Defense Sciences Office (DSO) is requesting information on mathematical and algorithmic foundations for the practical design and assessment of strategic mechanisms. Of ultimate interest are capabilities to strategically assess and manage the actions of state and non-state actors utilizing a mixture of economic, diplomatic, social, and military options. Development of strategic mechanisms will require the integration of recent advances in game theory, behavioral economics, computer science, and artificial intelligence.

Definitions that are relevant for responding to the RFI are:

  • Mechanism design: The art of designing the rules of a game to achieve a specific

    desired outcome1 and can be viewed as a game theoretic “inverse problem.”

  • Mechanisms are protocols to incent collective decision making among self-interested agents2 and common examples are auctions and voting schemes.
  • Strategic mechanisms are defined here as structures and rules engineered to achieve desired strategic outcomes such as deterrence or coercion.

    Currently, the tools to meaningfully assess the likelihood or viability of strategic actions are limited to combinations of wargaming and modeling. Each of these tools has multiple limitations. Wargaming at the strategic level is decision centric and heavily dependent on both priming of the players and the question construction to elicit meaningful responses. Even when successful, defining strategies that can achieve objectives requires repeated assessment of scenarios that must be carefully constructed. This wargaming “art” can be complemented by modeling methods to capture details that may influence decision makers (e.g., relative combat power of military assets), but principled inclusion of relevant factors such as adversarial reasoning, information warfare, and economic incentives is lacking. Given the changing nature of conflict3, consideration of these factors is critical.

Defense Systems offers an explanation of what this is supposed to be:

DARPA’s Foundations for Strategic Mechanism Design wants to see whether it’s possible to devise a better high-level wargame that will prevent the U.S. from being surprised by the actions of an adversary, or enable the U.S. to surprise an opponent with its own actions. However, the game that DARPA envisions is the opposite of the usual Pentagon simulation: while most military war gaming aims to determine how a given plan might work out if implemented, DARPA wants a game with a predetermined outcome. The game is there to tell the military how to achieve it.

“We would want to shift from a ‘simulation’ mindset to thinking about the creation of the rules of the game itself,” DARPA spokesman Jared Adams told Defense Systems. “For someone that has done a lot of war gaming, this is the hardest part: designing the scenario, objectives and rules of the players to explore certain decisions in an intelligent way. We want to do the inverse problem: given a desired set of strategic outcomes, could you define the rules of the game in such a way that the decisions will lead to that?”

This isn’t a new technique. In some versions of alternative futures analysis or “backcasting,” analysts are asked to work backwards from assigned outcomes to determine the most plausible paths whereby that outcome might occur. Done well, they help to identify inflection points, critical junctures, key drivers/variables, and possible warning indicators. It can also be useful to help establish what needs to happen for a particular policy end-state to be achieved.

Usually this is done by an analysts, analytical team, or discussed in a seminar/BOGSAT setting, not run as a kind of reverse-engineered computational (war)game. To be frank, having taken part in such analysis, I’m not convinced a game would add much compared to a well-run group discussion. However, DARPA is all about experimenting with new approaches, technologies, and capabilities, so it will be interesting to see what they come up with.

h/t Michael Peck, and ensuing Facebook discussion with Christopher Weuve and Eric Monroe Walters .PAXsims

According to The Telegraph, “The German army has war-gamed the break up of the European Union in study of security crises that could face the country by  2040.”

No, not exactly. If one actually checks out the original report in Der Spiegel, the Germany military has simply produced a strategic forecasting product similar to the US National Intelligence Council Global Trends studies or the UK Ministry of Defence Global Strategic Trends reports. Some of the scenarios in it are rosy. Others are not (via Google translate).

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In the sixth scenario, the worst (“the EU in disintegration and Germany in reactive mode”), Bundeswehr strategists assume a “multiple confrontation”. The future projection describes a world in which the international order erodes after “decades of instability”, the value systems worldwide diverge and globalization is stopped.

“EU enlargement has been largely abandoned, more states have left the community, and Europe has lost global competitiveness in many areas,” the authors write. “The increasingly disorderly, sometimes chaotic and conflict-prone world has dramatically changed the security environment of Germany and Europe.”

The Guardian describes the report as “contingency plans,” which is overstating things a bit too. Such forecasting exercises are usually intended to spark critical thought, and may impact policy in a very indirect way, but fall short of “planning” in any meaningful sense.

From the Der Spiegel report there is no evidence that anything was wargamed at all. The scenarios would, however, certainly make interesting settings to explore using wargaming methods.

PAXsims

At The American Conservative, Harry Kazianis warns that he fought a war against Iran—and it ended badly:

Back in 2013, a group of my colleagues did a series of wargames on what would happen if Iran and America ended up in a conflict. Held at a secret location in think-tank land here in D.C., we sketched out the various possible pathways to conflict, what each side’s war aims and strategy would be, and how such a conflict could end. While the game was conducted off the record, considering where U.S.-Iran relations seem to be headed, my fellow wargamers have allowed me to share the details of one of three scenarios in an effort to promote a better understanding of the risks involved if the bombs really do start falling.

In the most intense of our three-day wargaming scenarios, we looked at a situation in 2020 where U.S.-Iranian relations had been souring for several years. Both sides are jockeying for position over a geopolitical chessboard stretching from Lebanon all the way to Afghanistan. In this scenario, Tehran is becoming increasingly upset over U.S. naval forces building up and exercising in the Persian Gulf. To make its displeasure known, Iran decides to test a salvo of intermediate range missiles that fly far into the Indian Ocean—with an ICBM test looming in the next few months. The situation then gets infinitely more complex when U.S. intelligence is tipped off that a second barrage of missile tests is being prepped, and destroys them in mid-flight thanks to U.S. missile defenses in the area.

Our wargame begins when Tehran responds, deciding to conduct large-scale naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran also declares a naval exclusion zone, which essentially closes the important waterway for what would be a week of training drills—all to show off Tehran’s growing military power and ability to roil oil markets.

You’ll find more details at the link above.

PAXsims

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The most recent Foreign Policy magazine PeaceGame, produced in cooperation with the Emirates Diplomatic Academy and Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, was aimed not at experts and policy-makers, but budding young diplomats. According to the press release from FP:

The Future Diplomats PeaceGame brought together a select group of students of leading diplomatic academies from 21 countries and five continents. Looking to emerging foreign-policy challenges, the Future Diplomats PeaceGame took on the topic of cyber threats. Mohammed Al Dhaheri, one of the participants in the PeaceGame, said: “Being part of this event for the first time proved to be a revelation. I was able to appreciate and experience first-hand the challenges in dealing with people with different perspectives. It taught me that an understanding of varied world views is critical to finding a common space where we can cooperate to arrive at a solution that works for all of us.”

The first day of the event was dedicated to training with some of the leading experts in cybersecurity, defense, and diplomacy. Sessions focused on the critical issues in this rapidly evolving field of international relations, with a special emphasis on the interaction with broader foreign-policy challenges.

On Day 2, the Future Diplomats took on the role of key international stakeholders, navigating a series of simulated cyber events with the potential to escalate into full-blown conflict that required them to explore ways in which they could advance their country’s interests while achieving a peaceful outcome. The moderated discussions were presided over by a panel that combined decades of experience at the highest levels in both cybersecurity and diplomacy, providing expert commentary and context throughout the proceedings.

PAXsims

Also at Foreign Policy, a recent article by Benjamin Soloway looks at Project Azriel, a “first person shooter zombie-themed video game cognitive trainer tough enough to build fluid intelligence without boring you to death.”

Deanna Terzian, the president of CurriculaWorks, says the goal of the game is to “enter-train” its users. Other developers, she says, have tried including cognitive training tasks in games, but without weaving them in at a fundamental level.

“What we’ve done is we’ve integrated the cognitive training into the gameplay so when you are shooting the zombies you are actually using the mental set switching tasks,” she told Foreign Policy in an interview. “You’re using your mind to determine which weapon to use in order to take down the zombies as they’re coming at you.”

So, the question is, can you make cognitive training fun by weaving in a hunt for zombies? The company is trying to create a game that will convince players to do “something that is arduous but good for them,” Terzian says. “That’s part of our development philosophy: We like to add a spoonful of sugar to do things that are good for you.”

The game is currently available in early-access edition on Steam.

PAXsims

The Ohio State National Security Crisis Simulation recently ran a two-day series of crisis games.

The simulation places law, policy, intelligence, military, and communications students in their respective roles. It begins with the world as it is. Students draw on everything they have learned so far in their education as they respond in real time to new inputs from the Simulation Control Team, and dynamically to decisions by other players. Together with an elite group of seasoned practitioners in top roles–including federal judges, legislators, and retired generals–students must work as parts of multi-profession teams and use multi-institution processes to solve problems ripped from the headlines. The simulation’s architects present the players with realistic dilemmas and pressures of time, personality, information, consequence, and ethics. Ultimately, the exercise’s outcomes are determined by player decisions.

This year “students averted nuclear war, passed a congressional spending bill and halted an armed insurrection. And learned some valuable lessons.” You’ll find more details here, courtesy of Ohio State News.

PAXsims

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The 15th annual American Political Science Association Teaching & Learning Conference will be held in Baltimore on 2-4 February 2018. As usual, the conference will include a simulation and gaming track.

Simulations and Games
Simulations and games can immerse students in an environment that enables them to experience the decision-making processes of real-world political actors. Examples include in-person and online role-play scenarios like the Model European Union and ICONS, off-the-shelf board games, Reacting to the Past, and exercises that model subjects like poverty, institutions of government, and ethnic conflict. This track will examine topics such as the effects of gamification of course content on student motivation and engagement, cognitive and affective outcomes from simulations and games in comparison to other teaching techniques, and the contexts in which the use of simulations and games makes sense for the instructor.

PAXsims

Back in August, the long-running Extra Credits series produced a video on peace games, and the role that games might play in promoting cooperation and positive interaction. We forgot to post it at the time, but here it is now.

PAXsims

Simulation & Gaming (December 2017)

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The latest edition of Simulation & Gaming 48, 6 (December 2017) is now available.

 

Editorial


 

Articles


 

Gaming Material Ready to Use


AFTERSHOCK and WFP

As many readers will know, all profits from the sale of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game are donated to the World Food Programme and other United Nations humanitarian agencies. We’re happy to report that those contributions now total some $2,000.

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You too can donate to WFP here.

If you want to buy your own copy of AFTERSHOCK, you will find it at The Game Crafter

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DIRE STRAITS at McGill

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It’s official—Jim Wallman and I will be running a version of the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill University on Sunday, 25 February 2018.

McGill University’s third annual megagame, DIRE STRAITS, is set in the year 2020. It explores crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia in the context of an unpredictable Trump Admintration, growing Chinese strategic power, and multiple regional crises.

How will the region and the world deal with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons? Will China consolidate its hold over the South China Sea? How might relations between Beijing and Taiwan develop if the latter decides to adopt a more independent path? And how will the White House—beset by scandal, factional infighting, and an angry, unpredictable President—respond?

Approximately one hundred participants will assume the roles of national decision-makers, diplomats, military commanders, intelligence analysts, international organizations, journalists, and others.

 

Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite. Discounted “early-bird” tickets are available through to January 1.

You’ll find a Facebook page for the event here. A BBC News report on the original DIRE STRAITS game (held at King’s College London in September) can be found here.

Above: Images from DIRE STRAITS at King’s College London, September 2017.

Australian Army Wargaming Conference

On October 17, Headquarters Forces Command (HQ FORCOMD) held the Australian Army Wargaming Conference at Victoria Barracks, Sydney. Presentations from that conference can now be seen online via The Cove (the Australian Army’s open-access professional development website) and YouTube.

Opening address by MAJGEN Mick Krause.

MAJGEN Krause (himself a hobby wargamer) stresses the importance of genuine competition—something that wargaming can offer. The “essence of tactics,” he suggested, is creativity—but assessment for promotion tends to emphasize binary yes/no, pass/fail measurements. He expressed concern that most wargames currently in use in the Australian Army tend to emphasize attrition, and underrepresent the human factors that shape military outcomes. Consequence, they fail to teach the “very essence of our profession.” Wargaming helps players to visualize tactics and experience some of the cognitive stress of warfare. Wargames need to be realistic, easy to use (if they are to be used, and used repeatedly), and teach good tactics (demonstrating combined arms effects in the battle space).

It’s an excellent and inspiring presentation, and there is useful discussion in the Q&A period too.

LTCOL Nick Bosio on “Johnny, Timmy and Spike” Enhancing Decision Making Through Gaming.”

LTCOL Bosio discussed how wargaming can contribute to decision-making. He focuses on three issues: the breadth of available games, why people game, and how humans make decisions. Drawing upon one typology of player types—”Spike” (who loves to win), “Timmy” (who enjoys the game narrative), and “Johnny” (the contrarian)—he goes on to discuss how gaming can contribute to the development of underlying cognitive skills and heuristics. Gaming against a live opponent may contribute to better cost/benefit analysis. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of why “Timmy” skills are important—namely that campaigns are a “story” of lethal and non-lethal effects that must be combined to alter an opponent’s perceptions and will. Timmy-types may be able to rise above functional specializations to better understand this broader picture.

PAXsim’s very own ISIS CRISIS, now available as part of the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK), gets a mention too.

SGT Tyron Casey introduces the Australian Defence Force Wargaming Association (ADFWGA).

SGT Casey offered an overview of the Australian Defence Force Wargaming Association, which was first established in 2009/10 by military personnel who enjoy (hobby) wargaming. Today it has some 270 members. The ADFWA promotes hobby wargaming as way of developing tactically-relevant skills, organizes events, and raises funds for charity. ADFWA also encourages the chain-of-command to support wargaming activities by their personnel.


I’m not sure if it was mentioned at the conference, but this is probably a good time to also remind any Australian readers that the Connections Oz 2017 wargaming conference will be held on 11-13 December at the University of Melbourne. I was fortunate to attend a couple of years ago, and had a great time.

AFTERSHOCK en français

Although AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis is only available in English, Gilles Deleuze has just posted a very good French translation of the rules to Board Game Geek. Many thanks, Gilles!

This is probably also a good time to thank Bartosz Bolechów for his Polish translation of the rules, first posted to BGG in 2015.

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AFTERSHOCK being played at Peace Direct in London in September 2017 (with a great shot of my back).

Rubel: Wargame rules as intellectual catalysts

Phalanx 50-3The most recent (September 2017) issue of the Military Operations Research Society’s Phalanx contains a thoughtful piece by CAPT Robert (Barney) Rubel on the role that wargame rules and adjudication can play in encouraging—or stifling—creative thought:

One of the more trite phrases one hears today is the injunction to “think out of the box.” The intent of the phrase is to stimulate creative thinking; to come up with ideas that perhaps do not conform to existing frameworks. This, of course, is easier said than done, the attempt to do so being akin to trying to make a list of things you would never think of. There are any number of individual and group techniques that have been developed to facilitate the process of brainstorming, but perhaps overlooked in the literature is the potential for wargame rules to act as catalysts for out-of-the-box thinking.

The subtle, nonintuitive, and perhaps threatening information and ideas that can emanate from a game can be termed “whispers.” Games often produce more information than their designers intended or expected, often equivocal and open to interpretation. When that threatens organizational equities, ears are deadened to the whispers. Game sponsors, players, umpires, and even analysts are almost never objective about their games, so it requires an appreciation of how novel thinking can emerge from a game in order to take the steps necessary to achieve sufficient objectivity to detect the whispers (Rubel 2006).

You’ll find the full piece here.

 

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 12 October 2017

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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.

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At War on the Rocks, PAXsims associate editor Ellie Bartels discusses how to incorporate wargaming into a cycle of research to explore future challenges:

What will the future wars look like? Fiction offers a range of answers — some contradictory. Is the priority urban security as depicted in the dystopian sci-fi world of Judge Dredd, or warfare in space shown in the sci-fi series The Expanse? Will advances in autonomy bring robot overlords like the Terminator or help-mates like Tony Stark’s Jarvis? Figuring out what the future may look like — and what concepts and technology we should invest in now to be prepared — is hard. To do it well we need to consider how America might take advantage of different futures. To this end former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff challenged the wargaming community to build a cycle of research to help understand what these paths might be.

But what is the cycle of research? Put simply it’s a process for using multiple tools with different strengths and weaknesses to examine the same problem from many angles, which a range of gamedesigners recommend. Like any other method, games have limitations: They produce a specific type of knowledge that is helpful in answering some questions, but not others. Games cannot be expected to provide a credible prediction of the performance of a new weapon or detailed understanding of the cost of acquiring a platform. However, by using gaming in conjunction with modeling and exercises different types of evidence can be gathered that should yield stronger results.

But what should the cycle look like if it is going to help us understand the future of conflict? Based on my practice as a national security game designer, I’ve found the following five steps can help guide effective follow-on analysis….

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On October 9-10, Foreign Policy magazine, in partnership with the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Harvard University’s Belfer Center, held their latest PeaceGame in Brussels. The topic this time was the conflict in Libya:

[The PeaceGame] brings together leading minds in national security policy, international affairs, academia, business, and media to “game out” how we can achieve peace, using as much creativity and seriousness as is devoted to war games.  In so doing, the PeaceGame seeks to redefine how we think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace. Bringing the series to Europe for the first time, the 8th edition of the PeaceGame focused on identifying practical solutions to the crisis in Libya – a matter that is of great mutual interest to both Europe and the MENA region. Participants in this PeaceGame explored two scenarios. The first scenario took on implementation of the new Libya Action Plan and the associated internal political and security challenges. The second turned to the broader regional security and humanitarian risks. Within the bounds of their roles, participants sought opportunities for positive change, as well as strategies for mitigating risk and de-escalation. The event was conducted under Chatham House Rule to allow participants to speak with maximum candor and creativity.

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According to the Marine Corps Times, the Marine Corps Commandant wants a sophisticated,  virtual reality “holodeck” to enable fast, sophisticated digital wargaming.

In the future, Marine commanders will be able to conduct large-scale exercises in a holodeck straight out of “Star Trek, The Next Generation,” the Corps’ top general said on Wednesday.

Right now, the Marine Corps uses simulations to train individuals, such as pilots or vehicle drivers, said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.

“What I’m looking for is a simulation where a battalion or squadron commander or a regimental or a group commander or a division, wing or MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] or a corps commander can go in and not have to put thousands of people on the battlespace and in the air and actually get them to do a repetition,” Neller said. “That is going to take some time.”

Simulation capabilities would allow commanders to run scenarios against future threats to gauge what equipment and tactics are most needed to succeed.

Corps officials are looking at what resources would be necessary to have a virtual wargaming facility at Quantico for Marine Corps University students to hold such exercises, Neller said.Neller spoke at the Marine Corps League’s annual Modern Day Marine expo in Quantico, Virginia, where officials said on Tuesday that the Corps plans to increase the number of virtual wargames it holds annually from 11 to 20 over the next three to five years. Those plans could involve building a new center to house the simulation technology.

<p>“In a perfect world, it would be like Jean-Luc Picard in ‘Star Trek,’” Neller said. “I’d walk into the holodeck and I’d go, ’Computer, Battle of Waterloo, 1812, Prussian army, I am in command, simulation — go.’ That’ll be here one day. You and I probably won’t see it. That’s what we need. We need the reps because we can’t afford to make a mistake in the fight.”

Of course, the technology would be remarkable (and probably expensive, slow to adapt, and rapidly dated). An important first step, however, would to promote among junior and senior officers a better understanding of what wargaming can and cannot do, and to emphasize genuinely adaptive and agile human-in-the-loop adversaries with a mandate to challenge and win.

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The Wall Street Journal warned last month that “After Multiple Invasions, the U.S. Army Is Getting Tired of Liberating Atropia.”

“Candidly,” says Lt. Col. Joe Buccino of the 82nd Airborne Division, a veteran of multiple Atropia actions, “having liberated that place four times in 15 months, it is about time we let the Atropians provide security for themselves.”

Atropia’s problem, it seems, is reality. It keeps interfering with an elaborately constructed military-training scenario.

The U.S. Army’s training command in 2012 developed a rich back story for various ersatz countries in its war games. The fictional country of Atropia, according to the playbook, is a pro-western dictatorship. The Army ordered its training centers adopt the scenario.

Soldiers, like Col. Buccino, soon tired of rerunning the same old script. Bigger problems with Atropia arose when some European U.S. allies balked at the idea of propping up faux dictators—even if the blood on their hands was only stage paint.

The U.S., its NATO allies, Russia and other militaries around the world use fictional scenarios to make their military drills more sophisticated. They require soldiers to understand the political environment and motivations of the people they are trying to protect, and defeat.

In Atropia, the problem was maps. The fictional country exists so that Western allies can learn to cooperate. But imaginary national boundaries superimposed onto actual geography stirred friction.

Atropia’s borders roughly coincide with Azerbaijan. Neighboring Limaria, a made-up country, coincides with Armenia. The fake country of Kemalia is roughly equivalent to Turkey. In 2014, Turkey’s top general wrote to the head of U.S. European Command complaining that a historically Turkish town was inside the boundary of Limaria, not Kemalia.

Maps used in war games use the fictional names. PHOTO: U.S. ARMY

“They weren’t fooled by the fake names,” says a U.S. official. “It caused a diplomatic kerfuffle.”

Turkish officials did not comment on the episode.

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Late last month, The Strategy Bridge featured an excellent piece entitled “Wei Qi or Won’t Xi: The Siren Call of Chinese Strategic Culture,” by Lauren Dickey. In it she warns about the dagers of treating Chinese thought as more exotic than it actually is.

To believe, however, that there is a uniqueness to how Chinese strategy knits together ways and means in the pursuit of political ends risks over-complicating the study of Chinese strategic behavior. Indeed, to endeavor to interpret not only how Chinese traditions—such as Sun Tzu’s fortune cookie stratagems—guide decision-making but to further ascertain how individuals at the apex of the Chinese central government are applying such guidance is a formidable, subjective task for which even the most adept Sinologist or strategist is likely under-qualified. Rather than assuming culture alone drives strategic behavior, such studies should be conducted alongside rigorous examinations of the other elements of statecraft.

I was particularly pleased to see her criticize simplistic efforts to link culture and strategic thought through the supposed exemplars of popular national games—something I warned about in PAXsims a few months ago.

Finally, as masters at the game of Go (weiqi), Chinese strategists are purportedly engaged in a protracted war, maximizing their own advantages while considering the long-term outcomes of strategic decisions. This chess-like game traces back to the literati, generals, and statesman from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD); its objective is, simply, to control territory on the game board through the strategic placement of black or white stones.[15] The successful Go player will engage in moves, posturing, and tests of the opponent’s resolve. As the game continues and the board becomes more layered with pieces, players must simultaneously defend against the adversary on multiple fronts. In other words, the game of Go transforms into a “competition between two nations over multiple interest areas.”[16] To assume that Chinese defense planners were raised playing this strategic board game, and that such formative experiences continue to shape their thinking today, is a precarious assumption at best. Even if true, does an avid Go player—or in a Western context, a diehard Risk or Settlers of Catan gamer—have the operational knowledge or qualifications to translate strategy at the conceptual level of board games into national or military strategy? The impact of such strategic games upon the individual strategist is undoubtedly highly subjective. Thus, if anything is to be garnered from the Chinese tradition of Go and similar games in the West, it should be that the formulation and implementation of strategy and gains of each player are dependent upon the choices of the opponent. Whether one is playing Go, Risk, or Catan, strategic success is created through tactics of deception, coercion, and compellence—concepts which transcend cultural traditions.[17]

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Corbyn Run.

In New Statesman, Julia Rampen examines “How an obscure board game led to Labour’s gamification of power.”

[Shadow chancellor John] McDonnell told the Labour party conference on Tuesday that his economic team would be playing war games to prepare for government, with the help of an academic called Richard Barbrook. Internet sleuths soon tracked down the site Barbrook helped set up, Class Wargames. The site’s main attraction is the video’s subject, Game of War, which was reconstructed ten years ago by group of artists, software developers and political activists from an original developed by a left-wing Marxist theorist, Guy Debord.

Barbrook himself also hints that the Game of War shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously. “That’s an art project we did,” he tells me of the whole Class Wargames site. A political scientist, Barbrook has introduced gamification into the courses he has taught, and it seems like a natural extension to apply similar theories to his work with the Labour party. As well as co-ordinating Labour’s digital manifesto, he was involved in the creation of Corbyn Run, an online game launched during the 2017 general election. In it, the player, using an avatar of Jeremy Corbyn, shakes down bankers in order to collect money for the budget.

Barbrook was at the Labour party conference in part to launch Games for the Many, a pro-Corbyn games website. Launches include an improved version of Corbyn Run – “even Jeremy’s playing it, he thought it was hilarious” – and new works in the pipeline, including the working title of “Tinder for Canvassers”, which Barbrook says was coined by McDonnell himself.

The war games planned for the shadow economics team will not be quite as edgy, with participants seated round a table and asked to make decisions in a variety of situations, which have consequences. Experts will be invited to attend, such as former Bank of England officials. “We’d ideally have the whole shadow cabinet playing,” says Barbrook.

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In a forthcoming article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Miron Lakomy examines “Jihadi Propaganda in the World of Electronic Entertainment.”

This paper argues that video games have become a valid and increasingly significant means of jihadist digital propaganda. “Gaming jihad” has recently shown interesting alterations, mostly due to actions undertaken by the so called Islamic State and its cyber-partisans, which have discovered new ways of using this flexible and immersive medium. Similar to more conventional forms of its online propaganda, which have been imitated by other Islamist terrorist groups for years, the “Caliphate’s” exploitation of electronic entertainment software may be a forerunner for the increased interest of other VEOs in this medium.

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At The Forward, Michael Peck looks at the history of Israel through wargames. UPDATE: Ooops, I hadn’t noticed the date on this (2013). We’ll leave it here anyway.

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Amid the heighten profile of white supremicists, neoNazis, and the “alt-Right” in the United Stated, killing simulating Nazis in videogames has apparently become controversial in some quarters. However, Bethesda—publishers of the forthcoming first person shooter game Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus—have made it clear where they stand.

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PC Gamer takes up the story:

To its credit, Bethesda isn’t trying to soften or backpedal on the message. In fact, Pete Hines, the studio’s vice president of marketing and PR, is doubling down on it. “Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about,” he told GamesIndustry. “We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here.”

“[In the game] freeing America is the first step to freeing the world. So the idea of #NoMoreNazis in America is, in fact, what the entire game (and franchise) is about. Our campaign leans into that sentiment, and it unfortunately happens to highlight current events in the real world.”

He clarified that Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus wasn’t developed as a commentary on the current political climate in the US, echoing comments made in August by developer Machinegames. He called it a “pure coincidence” that it’s coming out at a time when Nazis are marching in American streets, but added that it’s “disturbing” that some people find its out-loud anti-Nazi stance to be controversial.

“This is what our game is about. It’s what this franchise has always been about. We aren’t afraid to embrace what BJ stands for and what Wolfenstein represents,” Hines said. “When it comes to Nazis, you can put us down in the ‘against’ column.”

PAXsims

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In August, Jeremy Antley wrote at Real Life about the challenge of modelling global war terrorism and counterterrorism in a boardgame, through the lens of Labyrinth (GMT Games 2010) and its post-Arab Spring update, Labyrinth: The Awakening.

Perhaps most telling is the new card for Jihadi John. It resembles the Jihadist Videos card from the original card set, in that each depicts jihadists staring into the camera, suggesting an intention of using the internet to spread propaganda. But while the Jihadist Videos card is a jihadist event and has imagery, text, and game effect that suggests the videos in question are meant for a predominantly non-Western, Muslim audience, the Jihadi John card — a neutral card — suggests something different. No longer an anonymous/ubiquitous extremist, Jihadi John is depicted as a celebrity, in every grotesque meaning of the word, whose decapitations are tailor-made spectacles for Western audiences.

It is as if the West cannot help but be captivated by the appearance of Jihadi John, even as it finds his actions abhorrent. He cannot be othered, even if his purpose is to clearly demarcate one culture from another, because his YouTube presence calls into question what it means to be other in the first place. His perfect English, his background and upbringing in the birthplace of the modern liberal order, appears to contrast with his avowed beliefs and demonstrates the relative failure of Western modernity to shape and produce its ideal citizens.

Here the streamlined history and simplified ideological reading of the conflict serves only to highlight the murkiness of self-reflection prompted by the desire for verisimilitude. Seeking understanding of Jihadi John in the form of a Labyrinth event card reveals not only the limits of the game’s design but also the limits of board games as a whole as technologies of representation. Successfully addressing the joint issues of playability and verisimilitude makes ideological indoctrination seamlessly pleasurable, but not all subjects — such as the use of technology as depicted in Labyrinth: The Awakening — can transition into simplified ideological forms. When this tension between playability and understanding becomes apparent, as it does with the Jihadi John event card, it upsets the pleasure of play and muddies the otherwise clear view of history the game tries to let players experience.

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Back in July, Russia Today did a review of Putin Strikes (One Small Step, 2016). The review was up to their usual incisive journalistic standards.

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Want to understand how game theory can help explain the emergence of social trust? The Evolution of Trust is a very cool video/game/multimedia presentation by Nicky Case that should help.

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The Irish comedy group Foil Arms and Hog consider what happens when an Englishman plays RISK.

The Orchard: A conflict resolution simulation

Lorenzo Nannetti is a senior analyst at the Italian think tank Il Caffè Geopolitico, a researcher for the Italian branch of the Atlantic Treaty Association, and an analyst for the US thinktank Wikistrat. He is also a PAXsims reader, and sent on this account of his conflict resolution simulation, “The Orchard.”


For fifty years, the countries of Cortia and Appal have been at peace. Between them lies a territory called “the Orchard”, a fertile area rich in water and resources that is vital for both countries’ populations. Neither Cortia nor Appal controls the Orchard. A treaty between them keeps the area neutral and governed through a joint system, so that both countries can enjoy its richness. Everything looked fine, until eight days ago…

This is the beginning briefing of “The Orchard” an international crisis simulation I ran at the Festival Francescano 2017, a Christian-inspirated forum for public debate in Bologna, Italy. This year’s theme being “the future”, I proposed a workshop about “building a peaceful future”, which aimed to explain common errors and pitfalls in preventing international crises and give participants some glimpses about crisis resolution and international negotiations.

The scenario, inspired by negotiation simulations at the Program on Negotiation by Harvard Law School, was created by me and adapted for participants who mostly had no professional background in international relations or related disciplines. I run it two times during the Festival, one on Saturday 23rd September, one on Sunday 24th, with different groups.

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Appalian diplomats strongly stating their refusal to accept a proposed offer. I’m the one standing up. Photo credit: Festival Francescano

Participants were divided into 3 teams: Cortian diplomats, Appalian diplomats and UN mediators. The dispute was fairly standard and straightforward: a precious contested area that one state had occupied and the other tried to reclaim, with widespread destruction threatening to harm both.

As set of instructions different for all factions stated aims, negotiating points, red lines and prejudices. That was the key.

With Cortia and Appal being fictional and players being non-professionals, the crisis was simplified and would have been easy to resolve. But players had to deal with restriction on what they could tell the other side, representing  prejudices and lack of trust, so common in real world. Mediators had more leeway, but they too had indications about what they thought was the best solution, representing their preconception about the conflict. Unfortunately, this solution wasn’t really the best one, as it missed the contenders’ interests. In order to solve the crisis, mediators would have to question their own beliefs and bring the contenders to at least understand the need to consider (even if not necessarily approve) the other point of view as well.

During the game players failed both times and both times the war went on as no satisfactory agreement was reached. But this failure brought the best insight as they had experienced first hand how easy it was to ignore opposing points of view and that even simple questions about the other side intent weren’t considered.

A good debriefing (originally thought to last 30-40 minutes, but which instead lasted almost 1 hour more due to interest) brought out some of the main basic points from crisis resolution: the concept of BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and the “three tensions” (creating value vs distributing value, empathy vs assertiveness, principals vs agents), with real life examples (North Korea-USA now, Egypt-Israeli negotiation over the Sinai in the late 1970s) being used to show how what they played would transfer to the real world.

During the first game, near the end, two players from Cortia (after asking me for permission) decided negotiations were going nowhere, faked throwing a grenade at the table and said “we attack while negotiations go on to get what we want”! To the astonishment of all other players, both friends and foe. This, too, provided good insight during the debriefing.

I feel crisis simulations like this one are good for training and educational purposes because they put participants (even non-professional ones) into roles they normally don’t fill and let them experience some of the issues and questions they face. This gives a deeper insight on real world dynamics and a better understanding of the decision-making process of “the opposing side” as well as their own. Sceanrios can be made simple or complex depending on which aspects should be taught and the experience of participants. For inexperienced ones, fictional countries are easier to use as they don’t require prior knowledge of real situation. For professional participants, real crises (or fictional ones that mirror real ones more closely) can be used.

Participant numbers are something to keep in mind. Originally thought for max 15 people, I had 21 the first day due to a large group asking to participate at last minute. On the other hand I had 6 participants the second day.  A large group can bring more richness, but without proper space can be hard to manage and some players may feel not involved. The smaller group was easier to handle and if enough referees are available, larger groups could be divided into more parallel games running at once – and then use the opportunity to compare results, strategies, etc. Still, both groups brought interesting discussion during debriefing.

The game was played in the open central square, and people stopped to look at the simulation curious about what we were doing. Some of them stayed for the whole game, including an Italian former Defence Minister (can’t disclose the name) who after the game asked for more info about the methodology used.

Was the workshop a success? I received good feedback, even some days later. One email I received probably summed it up: “I really wanted to thank you again because the workshop spurred a good and rich debate among our group even after the end”.

I feel that when players continue to talk positively about it even later, or continue to discuss the issue because they felt engaged and challenged, probably it’s a good sign.

Lorenzo Nannetti  

Diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea

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On September 20, some of the PAXsims crew (Tom Fisher and I) ran a full-day foreign policy game at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, exploring economic opportunities and diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea. In many ways, however, the topic and region was a secondary consideration: the primary purpose of the event was to examine how serious games could contribute to both diplomatic training and to foreign policy analysis within Global Affairs Canada and beyond. More than two dozen officials from GAC, the Department of National Defence, and Defence Research and Development Canada took part.

None of this report, nor the game play itself, should be seen in any way as representing the official position of the government of Canada—it was left entirely to us to design and run the game. Instead, the key issue here is one of evaluating gaming methodology.

Game Design

We decided at the outset that we wanted a game that would focus on the regular business of diplomacy, rather than being dominated by major crises or military confrontations. Crisis and warfare is actually easier to model in a game, and it is also much easier to maintain player engagement when participants are focused on blowing each other up. Here, however, we would have long (six month) turns, and many foreign policy initiatives would be mundane things like trade talks, ministerial visits, coast guard patrols, and development initiatives. At the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference, one panelist had commented that the problem with gaming foreign policy is that “foreign ministries don’t actually do anything.” He was being a little too cynical I think, but was also highlighting that diplomacy is as much or more about cultivating and maintaining long-term relationships as it is about achieving immediate, focused objectives. How could we reflect that in a workable game, one that challenged players to explore ways of gaining a diplomatic edge, advancing national interests, and (to quote the phrase much beloved of middle powers such as Canada) “punch above their weight” in international relations?

As a further complication, I very much wanted trade and investment to be an important part of game play, but in a way that highlighted Western businesses as largely autonomous, profit-seeking entities—actors that are certainly happy to win the support of governments, but are ultimately trying to maximize the return on their investments. As one of my wargaming colleagues noted, we were trying to put an thinking, self-interested E (economic) back into DIME (diplomatic/information/military/economic).

In the end, we decided to use a modified matrix game. Most game components were produced using the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK). A large map in the centre of the room depicted the South China Sea and surrounding area, including various disputed maritime boundaries, key outposts in the Spratly Islands and elsewhere, and major offshore oil resources.

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Seven countries were represented in the game, each played by a three-person team: China, the United States, Japan, Canada, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Each could take one action per turn. However, teams also started with several diplomatic, economic, and military bonuses, represented in this case by cards. A single card could be spent to secure a +1 modifier to a matrix argument (or impose a -1 modifier on someone else’s argument), or multiple cards could be spent to secure an extra action that turn. This is essentially the same system outlined in the MaGCK User Guide (although we used cards rather than tokens), and it has the advantage that it enables flexible and creative gameplay without bogging the game down in complex mechanisms. Players could receive new bonus cards at various points for foreign policy achievements.

In addition to the state actors, we also had one player representing “global (Western) trade and investment,” and another representing “Chinese trade and investment.” Both had a hand of trade and investment cards, each outlining a sector and potential project, the company concerned, and the sorts of factors that would determine its success. The global player’s cards also noted the nationality of the company. These cards were played as matrix actions, and the profitability of the investment was a function of the success of the associated matrix argument. This created an incentive to place investments carefully, and to seek supportive conditions—perhaps local tax breaks, or business reforms, or synergies with other projects, or diplomatic support. We kept a “market share” score to encourage a competitive spirit.

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There was one key difference between the global and Chinese investors, however: the latter were also part of the Chinese team. Certainly, they wanted to make the best business moves possible—but they also were expected to advance foreign policy objectives to a certain degree, including China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy to secure trade routes, markets, and natural resources. This provided an extra instrument to Chinese foreign policy, although at times it also seemed a constraint on effective Chinese overseas investment.

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A final element of the game were the news reports at the start of each turn. This consisted on a major news item (such as commodity price changes, an oil spill in disputed waters, or a destructive typhoon), plus several minor stories. Included with this inject was a reward for effective diplomacy: for example, a bonus to the team that had most strengthened its maritime claims, or which had achieved the greatest diplomatic success last turn.  Where necessary, the group of senior game observers acted as the jury in deciding who should be rewarded and why. The game covered two and a half years, from late 2017 into early 2020—not entirely coincidentally, the years immediately prior to the recent DIRE STRAITS megagame at Connections UK.

One of our biggest worries in all this was the timing. We had seven teams, plus two other players. Nine actors are certainly more than I would usually recommend in a matrix game. To keep everything on time, and to get in a reasonable number of turns (five), we had to keep everyone on a tight schedule: 10 minute turns for China and the US, and 5 minutes for everyone else. Still, that also meant it would take an hour before a team would take its next turn. Would everyone get bored and tune out?

Game Play

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. The players were superbly engaged—they quickly picked up on the matrix game method, were very active throughout each turn consulting with other teams, and very much embraced their roles.  It was all a lot of fun too.

As noted at the outset of this report, the actual gameplay cannot in any way be seen as representing any sort of official Canadian view of Southeast Asia—the players were all playing as individuals, not officials, and Tom and I were the ones who designed the game. However, it does give a good sense of how varied and interesting the unfolding narrative was. I was particularly impressed with the way all the teams employed the various tools of modern diplomacy to advance their interest.

China slowly extended its influence, largely through economic means. They also significantly enhanced their ability to offer humanitarian assistance in the region, setting up a regional crisis centre—a move intended to also project greater Chinese influence. Although the United States viewed Beijing as an emerging regional competitor, the subtlety of Chinese diplomacy meant that there was little they could do to counter its influence. They fostered good relations with all local countries (especially Malaysia), and at the end of the game (with the Trump Administration facing growing political problems at home) they launched a series of countermeasures against alleged unfair Chinese trading practices. Japan exerted considerable economic influence by virtue of its aid, trade, and investment in the region, as well as its not-inconsiderable military resources. However, they were well aware of the dangers of being too assertive, and generally focused on reassuring others while subtly promoting their own economic interests. Canada had much fewer diplomatic resources to bring to bear, but did well in promoting commercial opportunities and fostering innovative partnerships.

The various ASEAN countries represented the game all pursued rather different strategies, but all were successful in their way. Vietnam engaged in major reform efforts: first a major anti-corruption drive, and later a move to reduce government red tape. This made it an even more attractive destination for foreign investment. While much of that investment was Western, it was open to Chinese investment too, despite its trepidation over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. By contrast, the Philippines undertook few reforms—on the contrary, a tough anti-drug campaign raised growing human rights concerns. However, they were prepared to wheel and deal with anyone, and cultivated the growing power of China as well as traditional ally the United States. Manila and the Hanoi also agreed on a joint fisheries protection regime that was aimed at countering overfishing but which also subtly pressed back against some Chinese maritime claims. Malaysia suffered an ISIS terror attack early in the game, and thereafter took several measures to enhance its security, including deeper intelligence cooperation with the US and further naval modernization (which the US supported too).

Finally, our global and Chinese investors were very active. In the end, the former came out slightly ahead—in part due to a major sale of US armoured vehicles to the Philippines, which turned down an offer of comparable (or even slightly better) Chinese equipment.

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The real proof of concept from this pilot project will be if the participants and observers found it of value. I think it was pretty easy to demonstrate the value of this type of game as an educational and training tool. As a mechanism for policy analysis and development, however, the test is a little harder. The very general topic and long time frame probably didn’t help in that regard—it is easier to show analytical payoffs with a more focused topic, such as with the ISIS CRISIS series of matrix games. Nonetheless, I do think the event clearly demonstrated that games can be used to encourage innovative thinking, challenge conventional wisdoms, crowd-source ideas, anticipate possible responses, explore second and third order effects, and generally approach policy questions from a new and interesting perspective. Certainly, the feedback to date has been very positive.

Australian Army wargaming at The Cove

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In December 2016 the Australian Army launched The Cove, an unclassified professional development network intended to encourage learning, reflection, and discussion:

The Cove is an online professional development network for the Australian Army. It is based on the theory of ‘Connectivism’. Often referred to as a ‘learning theory for the digital age’, connectivism recognises the importance of developing communities of practise to share expertise and enhance continuous learning.

The Cove is designed to connect Defence members together into a professional network, based on their professional interests and/or level of experience. We act as a medium for the sharing of experience and expertise. The Cove includes a variety of videos, podcasts, blogs and academic papers to engage all sorts of learning styles. Some of our content is guided, but most of it is designed to be self-accessed and shared.

When you first visit, you might think the Cove is an Army resource. It isn’t! We like to think of it as a ‘land resource’ focused on fighting in the land domain. As such, it should be as relevant to the RAAF and the RAN if they want to learn about operating on land.

While there is a breadth of information available on the World Wide Web, we have found that our most valuable resource is our own people. The Defence community contains a wealth of knowledge, experience and wisdom that, if shared, can help pave the way for future generations. As with any profession, the ‘Profession of Arms’ is best learnt from those who have gone before. For this reason we encourage all members to contribute their ideas and add their own voice. Active participation is rewarding and can bring about significant change.

The Cove is all about a mature and professional conversation. By using our resources, you agree to adhere to the Cove Charter. It’s simple: adhere to Army’s values. If you can’t do that, you won’t be allowed to take part. To view the Cove Charter and rules for participation, click here.

It is a terrific initiative, and very well done—especially if they can maintain a good pace of posting new content and attracting contributions and content. I’ll be following it regularly in the future.

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