Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

innovative game mechanics: discussion

We’ve had a few of good replies to my earlier musings on the issue of  innovative game mechanics and conflict/development simulation—notably, one by Eric Walters at ConsimWorld, and the other by game designer Brian Train in the comments section here at PaxSims. In the interests of facilitating a continuing the conversation (and to make both of them easier to find in one place), I’ve reposted them below, along with some more of my own thoughts.

Eric Walters comments:

To me there have been four major innovations in wargaming over the past 30 years regarding board games–and I’m not talking about physical components, necessarily. Or internet play in either synchronous (VASSAL) or non-synchronous modes. Here’s what I’ve observed, for what it’s worth:

1) Card Driven Games. This genre has caused a small revolution, particularly in strategic games. And while there were card driven games in tactical games before (UP FRONT comes to mind), it wasn’t until COMBAT COMMANDER came out that they seem to be growing in popularity. The uncertainty and chaos these games engender has been readily embraced.

2) Euro-Games. For better or for worse, these games are influencing board wargames. I expect this trend to continue. CONFLICT OF HEROES is perhaps the best example and more “hardcore” wargames are at least embracing the physical component treatments of Euros. Games like WHERE THERE IS DISCORD and Valley Games’ REPUBLIC OF ROME and HANNIBAL reprints are very remiscient of Eurogames, physically. But I’m more interested in systems approaches, and this is where CONFLICT OF HEROES shines. I expect to see a lot more efforts embrace Euro-game systems approaches. On a lesser theme, “lite” games such asMEMOIR ’44COMMAND AND COLORS ANCIENTS, etc., also seem to run parallel to Eurogames in terms of their elegance.

3) The Simmons Block Games. No, I’m not talking about the usual block games that Columbia Games puts out. I’m talking about the two Napoleonic wargames that use no luck for combat resolution–with incredible physical components that really seem to send you back to the period–the game board looks like it’s lifted right out of a history or tactics text. Two games came out, one on Marengo (BONAPARTE AT MARENGO) and one on Austerlitz (NAPOLEON’S TRIUMPH), and there is even a Civil War game you can find online called BAPTISM AT BULL RUN that uses a similar system. Simmons Games is coming out with a title on the Battle of Gettysburg using the same style mechanics. The gaming experience is unlike anything else.

4) But perhaps the greatest innovation is one of philosophy in board wargame design. Players are getting less and less control and having to improvise in the midst of more and more fog and friction. There are a number of devices to achieve this, but as the wargaming community has greyed, it wants games that are less like chess. Where, exactly when, and with what title did this begin? I might argue it really started with SQUAD LEADER (1977)–it seems amazing to us now, but we thought there was a lot of fog and friction in the game at the time. Other games–particularly the block games–had fog, but the friction in SQUAD LEADER was something of a novelty. Today, such notions are quaint–even ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER, with all the additional friction that the system introduces–still has many chesslike elements in playing it. Tactical squad-level board games now are far more chaotic, for the most part. We see much the same thing in strategic simulations as of late, although this is often due to the influence of Card Driven Games. But not always. On the operational level, many games still retain chess-like qualities but even this is changing–the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series being perhaps the best known example.

Brian Train comments:

I think Eric Walters hit it on the head in his reply to your post on the CSW social site (can’t be bothered to log in and write this there). He identified four very important developments, the most iportant IMO being the advent of chaos and loss of control issues being worked into board wargames – where, as you note, they have lived comfortably in years in miniatures wargames, for good or ill effect. (I am awaiting delivery of “AK47 Republic”, a set of miniatures rules from Peter Pig that eschews a lot of the detail on weapons and focuses on troop quality and introduces a fair bit of chaos.)

I think the Internet saved board wargaming from complete collapse, and the desktop computer with all its publishing technology kept it looking good. I’m not sure all the games being produced are that great – too many of them are derivative of other not especially good designs, are not well tested and veer too far to one side or the other in terms of complexity. Owning a paintbox doesn’t make you Monet.

I dont’ want to comment on computer wargames. I don’t play them, never have, and I think the current fascination with putting everything onto a screen is a mistake. Again, people are mistaking the pretty flashy moving pictures for anything else of substance. I know that you can pile a lot of data into a computer game and have it run automatically so that a live player/umpire doesn’t have to deal with a level of detail that would swamp him. But jamming a lot of numbers into inside a “black box”, with suspicious algorithms that are not transparent to the players, will give you the wrong answers. And computer AI should be completely out of the picture – I think people may start out responding to computer AIs as if they were human adversaries, but sooner or later they end up playing to the AI’s flaws (one of these flaws being that AIs exhibit their own flaws, not human flaws).

One good thing that modern technology has brought us is the ability of humans to play together remotely. The logistics of getting enough people physically together for a worthwhile multi-player game often prevents them from happening.  With instant messaging, videoconferencing and free software that allows real-time play over the Net like VASSAL, you can have a satisfying BOGSAT game when the table is not really there in the first place.

What kind of game mechanics can we use for conflict/development situations? Interesting question. There’s a lot we shouldn’t use, certainly. I would say any mechanism that reduces a player’s control over game elements and agents, increases imponderables, and introduces the unexpected, would be most helpful – though this works only up to a point, after which the players are reacting to the system and not each other.

Some form of role-playing like exercise (preferably umpired and double-blind) with players agonizing over the allocation of pitifully meagre resources or decision abilities to nearly limitless ranges of action (like a card-driven game), and an emphasis in its execution on the unintended and secondary effects of player’s actions… that’s a start.

How might this affect professional simulation design, especially regarding conflict and development issues? A lot depends, of course, on the audience.

With students one can quite easily imagine CDG mechanics and Eurogame look-and-feel being used quite effectively to design educational games on the sorts of issues we deal with here at PaxSims, especially for a student audience that may be familiar with both (in the form of CCGs/collectable card games like Magic, for example). Of course, it would remain important to have effective debrief sessions to address where the game departs from reality if one wants to make sure participants are learning the “right” lessons.

Among professional audiences, however, those very game mechanics might be a double-edged sword in cases where there is already some resistance to simulations as a training or research tool. I once had a case where senior academic participant felt that a policy simulation was too game-like and somehow beneath him —he bolted the workshop, muttering something about “summer camp”, rather to the amusement of several much more senior and more enthusiastic policy participants who stayed.  I suspect that problem would be even more substantial if the game mechanics and materials looked too much like Pokeman or Settlers of Catan. Gary does use cards as a playing aide in the World Bank’s Carana simulation, but they’re more there to identify policy options and summarize resource costs than as a hard-and-fast definition of allowable actions CDG-style.

Within NGOs, where hierarchy issues are rather different, it might be less of a problem, and I can see Eurogame designs in particular as potentially appealing.

Brian also raises the issue of computer simulations. While I think these can be quite useful, I remain (as is probably evident from some past postings here) about their potential negatives. In particular, a boardgame or role-playing game is self-evidently a game, and its mechanics are usually quite open. This facilitates the very useful questioning of assumptions, and can sustain a quite productive dialogue about the social realities that the game is meant to model. With computer-aided simulation, by contrast, assumptions are invisibly buried in software, while the increasing visual appeal of graphics and interfaces could seduce one away from asking important questions about what is being supposedly simulated. This, of course, is Sherry Turkle’s important critique of simulation use in the physical and design sciences, and I think it applies even more in the peace, conflict, and development field (and broader social sciences) even more.

Finally, Eric—in the context of wargames—raises the issue of increasing inclusion of uncertainty, friction, and “fog of war” in game design. This is a really important development that transplants well to potential simulations of peacebuilding and development issues. As anyone knows, the “fog of peacebuilding” is a omnipresent and powerful factor in real-life peace and stabilization operations, complicated too by the sheer multiplicity of actors and the consequent difficulties of stakeholder consultation, coordination, and information flow. In my own Brynania peacebuilding simulation it is a central part of the whole purpose and design of the simulation: to simultaneously flood participants with knowledge, yet often leave them missing key details or dealing with incomplete or contradictory accounts.

Let’s keep the discussion going… other thoughts?

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