Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: June 2014

Connections Australia 2014

It is now confirmed—Australia will be getting its own version of the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference, to be held at the University of Melbourne on 8-9 December 2014:

Australia-flagConnections Australia

Due to the success of the Connections conference last year in the UK and the many successful years of the US original, we have decided to run a similar conference/ workshop here in Australia.

It will be held in the Interaction Design Lab at the University of Melbourne 8-9 December 2014.

We are seeking expressions of interest from potential attendees, particularly anyone with something to present. The format will be four 90 minute sessions per day with 2-3 speakers and time for open discussion on each topic. We would like to have a broad range of participants from the military, emergency management, law enforcement, business and academia.

Anyone interested in attending is asked to contact Todd Mason or Mariana Zafeirakopoulos with a proposal.



Monday 8 December

0900-1030 Introduction to wargaming
1030-1100 Break
1100-1230 Wargaming for Intelligence Analysis
1230-1330 Lunch
1330-1500 Wargaming in the Australian Army (TBC)
1500-1530 Break
1530-1700 TBC

Tuesday 9 December

0900-1030 TBC
1030-1100 Break
1100-1230 TBC
1230-1330 Lunch
1330-1500 TBC
1500-1530 Break
1530-1700 Wrap Up



There will be no cost for conference attendance, however a gold coin donation to cover tea & coffee would be appreciated. No meals will be provided (other than coffee, tea and biscuits etc.)

There are many cafes around the University campus and in nearby Carlton for lunch.

A conference dinner will be held on the Monday evening (details to be confirmed).

Review: Target Iran

modern_war_9_target_iran-388841374220723dTarget: Iran. Decision Games/Modern War magazine/Strategy & Tactics Press, 2014. Designer: Joe Miranda. $30.00 (including magazine).

Unfortunately, this year has seen a growing backlog of games sitting on my shelf that I have not yet had an opportunity to play. Recently, however, I did try out Target: Iran, a solitaire game of near-future US/coalition war against Iran that was included in Modern War magazine in March/April of this year. The game comes with one 22″ x 34″ map depicting Iran and the Persian Gulf, together with 228 counters representing US, Iranian, Iranian rebel, GCC, Israeli, and NATO units. An electronic version of the rules be found here.

The game starts with a random distribution of face-down distribution of both Iranian  military units and sensitive targets, such as WMD sites, Command and Control (C2) facilities, arms depots, missile sites, and training camps. Each strategic turn the Coalition mobilizes military forces and conducts “hyperwar” operations. The latter includes such things as ISR assets, special forces missions, and cyberwarfare. The player rolls a die to determine Iran’s response, and the target of any Iranian hyperwar attacks.

At some point in the game, either random events or the Coalition player may cause the game to shift from strategic to operational turns. At this point, the Coalition player can then use his or her mobilized military units to attack previously-identified Iranian targets. Additional hyperwar assets (cruise missiles) also become available. For the Coalition, it is essential not to trigger the operational phase of the game until the necessary military resources are in place, and intelligence has been collected on the identity of Iranian units and targets. However, there us always a risk of the war starting prematurely, an eventuality one must be prepared for. During the operational phase the actions of Iran are again determined by a die roll, These might include attacks on neutral shipping or even blockading the Straits of Hormuz.

Throughout the game, “oil points” (representing the price of oil) are used to generate military assets. Certain hyperwar actions and military outcomes can affect oil points, as can the destruction or capture of key targets or blockage of the Straits. At the end of the game, the price of oil determines the outcome: anything below $81 a barrel represents a Coalition victory of varying degrees, while Iran wins if the price exceeds $100. If at any point the price goes over $150/barrel, play ends immediately in a global economic meltdown and a humiliating Coalition defeat.

The rules are generally clear, although it would have helped to have had the move sequence printed on the map. There has been some discussion online as to whether the scenario is fully balanced, but this is easily tweaked by adjusting the starting price of oil (indeed, the rules give one the option of using the actual price of oil as a starting point). Random placement of Iranian units and random generation of Iranian strategic and operational actions increases the replayability of the game.

The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the 5th Fleet and GCC.

Turn 1: The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the US 5th Fleet and allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In my own playtest game, the Coalition spent six strategic turns activating forces, mobilizing bases,  identifying Iranian targets and units using ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets, and launching some covert attacks with special forces. As tensions grew, oil prices began to rise to over $100/barrel.

I then shifted to the operational phase. Cruise missile attacks destroyed most of the highest value (WMD) targets and several C2 nodes. These early victories reassured the oil market, and also limited Iranian hyperwar capabilities. In a few cities Iranian rebel units (encouraged by my own special forces) rose up to challenge the regime.

US Marines and a NEST team seize Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the elf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and small boat swarms.

It is late in the game, and US Marines and a NEST team have seizes Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the Gulf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and IRGC small boat swarms.

US, GCC, and Israeli aircraft struck the remaining targets as a US naval task force pushed its way into the Gulf.  US Marines and a NEST (Nuclear Emergency Support Team) contingent were landed to seize control of the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where a critical Iranian WMD facility was secretly located.

A dense array of mines and anti-ship missiles deterred the US fleet from progressing further into the Gulf, however. The Iranians even temporarily blocked the Straits of Hormuz twice—thereby spiking the price of oil up—but on each occasion US minesweepers were able to deal with the problem.

In the end, most targets in Iran had been destroyed, and the price of oil had settled down to a comfortable $62/barrel. The Coalition had achieved its goals.

Instructional Potential

Target Iran is not a particularly granular or accurate simulation—nor does it claim to be. There is very little in the way of a scenario or politics, and the oil price track is more a composite way of limiting unit mobilization and tracking victory points than an actual representation of oil price dynamics. Military units are abstractions rather than actual units, and the random placement of Iranian forces can result in some very odd deployments. Similarly, the random placement of WMD targets does not necessarily follow their real-world locations. The impact of cyberwarfare is certainly overblown. While it is reasonable to expect that cyberwarfare might degrade air defences or incapacitate command and control capabilities, it certainly would never place an entire US Navy carrier task force or Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps division out of action. One of the random actions that Iran can undertake is setting its own oilfields alight, requiring that Colation petroleum engineers be deployed to bring the fires under control—something that was certainly done by Iraq in 1991 and (to a much lesser extent) in 2003, but which makes little sense in the context of a limited Coalition strike on Iran.

Quite a bit has changed in the real world since the game was first designed too, although that is hardly anything the designer can be blamed for: the US and Iran are in negotiations over the latter’s nuclear capabilities, Iraq is no longer available as a jumping-off point for US attacks (indeed, it is an Iranian quasi-ally), and the US will soon be drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. Because of all this I wouldn’t want to use the game directly for teaching purposes.

Concluding Thoughts

Even if I wouldn’t use it to explore the real-world challenges of a Coalition strike on Iran, I very much enjoyed playing Target Iran. I certainly recommend it to those who want a relatively low complexity modern warfare game designed for solitaire play in under 2 hours or so.

The game is very easy to modify too. Indeed, I’m tempted to develop a variant that better models some of the current strategic realities in the Gulf—if and when I do, I’ll post the results to PAXsims.

MORS 82 Summary – Day 3


Today was the third and final full day of the Military Operations Research Society 82nd annual symposium. While there weren’t any additional wargaming panels scheduled today, there was a meeting of the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice, several relevant panels in other working groups (such as modelling and simulation), and a demonstration of the NDU counterinsurgency board game COIN of the Realm. In addition, there was plenty of time for the sort of sidelines-of-the-conference conversations with colleagues that can be so useful.

Rather than summarize any of that, however, I thought I would simply present a few tentative conclusions I’ve reached from the totality of this year’s symposium:

  • Differences in language and underlying concepts continue to divide the serious games and simulations community. However, I don’t believe that it is possible to develop a unified professional vocabulary, any more than it is to establish a clearly demarcated profession. Rather, we simply need to be explicit in what we mean by things, and why.
  • In part because of this, we need an evidence-based, practice-oriented approach to the field, in which we clearly identify the problem that a game is meant to address, and draw upon a toolkit of gaming approaches and tricks that might help to address it. For this reason, many of the conference and workshop presentations that I find most useful say something like this:
    1. We wanted to do X,
    2. we were operating under practical constraints Y,
    3. we decided to use gaming approaches A, B, C, D,
    4. all of which resulted in outcome Z (including a discussion of how and why we know this),
    5. …and here are some broader implications and applicability of our experience.
  • Interdisciplinarity and pluralism—in methodology, theory, game design, and members of the team—are valuable. (I was already convinced of this, but Yuna Wong made the case especially well.)
  • It is sometimes said—including repeatedly at MORS—that there are analytical games on the one hand, experiential/learning games on the other, and that mixing the two is a sin so grave that it will provoke some sort of world-wide zombie apocalypse. Certainly I agree that a game can be optimized for analysis, and might as a consequence offer very little learning, and vice-versa. However I would argue that it is possible to do some of both in the same game. Moreover, in many fields one has little choice, since the resources and participant availability simply don’t exist to organize separate games for each task. Humanitarian emergency response simulations, for example, often only get one chance to engage participants, and therefore need to simultaneously increase player knowledge AND allow senior participants to identify shortcomings in current arrangements that might be addressed.
  • The average time it takes Time Wilkie and I to come up with another “game that would be cool to do” is around 4.7 minutes.

With the MORS symposium now finished for the year, the next dates on my interdisciplinary wargaming calendar will be Connections 2014 (Quantico, 4-7 August) and Connections UK (King’s College London, 2-4 September).




MORS 82 Summary – Day 2


I started off the second day of this year’s Military Operations Research Society annual symposium by attending a presentation by Yuna Wong (Marine Corps) on The Search for the Black Herring: MORSS Strategist’s Corner. This wasn’t a gaming presentation per se, but Yuna is certainly well-known in the professional wargame community, and has been particularly active in encouraging the closer integration of social science theory and methods into gaming and strategic analysis. In particular, her talk asked what analytical organizations should do to prepare for future analytical challenges in an era of uncertainty. One of my current research projects looks at the political science of prediction, so I was especially interested to see what she had to say. (For those who might be wondering. a “black herring” occurs when analysts obsessively look for the next “black swans,” only to find “red herrings.”)

blackswanHer primary argument was that analytic communities needed to be multidisciplinary, broaden their methodological expertise, and use experts well. Among the challenges to being more multidisciplinary are the existing (US government) human resource system, as well as organizational culture. As an example of the latter she used the professional wargaming community, who tend to have internal measures of legitimacy (for example, many years of being a boardgamer) that have an exclusionary effect on new and different talent. It is also a risk for organizations to depart from existing practices, and the search and start-up costs of becoming more multidisciplinary may be higher than maintaining the status quo.

She also was critical of the tendency of modern operations research to focus on narrow technical problems and answers. Such approaches may be less useful for addresses issues that are better characterized as a “mess” rather than a “problem.” (For the difference between these and the effective use of judgment-based methods, see NATO’s Code of Best Practices for Judgement-Based Operational Analysis.) The real “black swans,” she suggested, were to be found in the swamp of complex and chaotic environments.

redpacificherringYuna had a number of useful thoughts too on effective use of outside expertise, addressing issues of identification, recruitment, facilitation, as well as practical issues (such as contracting and clearances).

I agreed with pretty much all that she had to say. However (following on from the work of Phil Tetlock and the Good Judgment Project) I asked whether we needed to pay more attention to cognitive styles. It isn’t just a question of finding people with differing areas of expert knowledge, but finding those people who are also not locked into particular paradigms or filter everything through a preexisting worldview.

While not a wargaming panel a great deal of what she had to say was of significant value for analytic gaming. Many wargames, after all, involve need to address messy problems, challenge conventional wisdoms, engage broader expertise in game design and adjudication, and explore uncertain futures.


John Hanley Jr. (formerly ODNI) presented on Gaming and Game Theory: Using Game Theory to Advance Gaming. He argued that understanding game theory helped in both wargame design and analysis. Manual games, he suggested, have their limitations: they are not rigorous analysis; they don’t have fully reproducible results; they are dependent on the quality and characteristics of the gamers; they can be personnel-intensive (and hence expensive), can be error-prone; and they aren’t real (and there is a consequent risk of over-learning from them). Many of these limitations can be reduced however, by continuous gaming and a structure for capturing results. He highlighted this by discussing a series of games over the years at the Naval War College, subsequent analysis of which identified clear clusters of moves, responses, outcomes, and equilibrium strategies for Red and Blue. The data, however, was messy (suggesting that moves and adjudication needs to be more clearly delineated and recorded). Capturing manual games in game theoretic form allows for more sophisticated analysis, helping to poulate the strategy space and identification of dominant strategies and equilibria.


Daniel Stimpson (George Mason University) talked about Using Operational Patterns to Influence Attacker Decisions on a Transportation Network. The challenge he was addressing was how to anticipate an opponent’s IED attacks on transportation and logistics networks. To date, he suggested, much of the academic (and classified) literature did not adequately address attacker dynamics and the interaction between attacker and defender. Boyd’s OODA loop provided some of the conceptual underpinning for his approach.

He offered a useful discussion of the notion of “randomness,” noting that neither “variety” nor “surprise” was synonymous with randomness, nor was it the same as failure to predict (although prediction is only possible in constrained systems, and totally random systems are inherently unpredictable). Surprise, he noted, derives from a failure to predict—the system itself is not “surprised.” In his model, Blue seemed far more constrained in its tactical choices than Red (whose behaviour seemed to be wholly driven by trial-and-error learning). The presenter noted that there were limits in how complex the model could be, given resource and time constraints.


Douglas Samuelson (InfoLogix and Group W), offered a presentation title Anybody Else Wanna Negotiate? Representing Negotiations Realistically in Wargames. He argued that negotiations are generally characterized by non-zero transaction costs and multiple representatives with non-identical interests. Because of this, negotiations often have multiple phases: reaching a deal, then selling a deal to constituents or clients. For a deal to last, it needs to keep producing benefits that outlast the negotiator’s involvement. Negotiations with many parties but clear interests are good candidates for mediation. Problems with shifting interests and unclear identities are more difficult to mediate. (He used the examples of North Korea and Israel-Palestine to illustrate his argument, although I was not convinced of his application of the cases.) He suggested that achieving the best possible deal is not always in a party’s interest, given the importance of promoting trust as a basis for continued interaction. He also addressed coalition-building, as well as conditions under which negotiators may wish to prolong talks, or actors may seek to derail negotiations by attacking the negotiators.

Unfortunately the presentation didn’t link this very well to wargame design or facilitation. For the most part it simply identified aspects of negotiation, and suggested at the end that a wargame ought to include these in some way. Some of the audience probed this point, asking questions about how we might best built the many complex aspects of negotiations into a wargame—the tricks of the trade, as it were, for manipulating players into realistic negotiation behaviours


1380513184-0A key aspect of this, of course, is building an effective narrative that players will internalize, and understanding what player narratives indicate about perceptions and behaviours. Fortunately the next presentation was by Yuna Wong (USMC) and Sara Cobb (George Mason University) on Narrative Analysis in Seminar Gaming. Unfortunately the presentation was classified as For Official Use Only and those of us Canadians with yellow badges had to leave. (This is known in MORS wargaming parlance as being “Brian Train-ed.”)

With this, our cunning plan to use US government thinking about narratives and seminar gaming to assist in the rapid Canadian military seizure of Seattle, Fargo, and Albany as envisaged in Defence Scheme #1 was foiled. Curses!

(I should add the Working Group 30 chairs were very apologetic about this, and as Canadians we left very politely.)


panel of expertsThe day ended with an excellent panel discussion on Practices in Wargaming that featured such wargaming luminaries as Peter Perla (CNA), John Hanley Jr., Jeff Appleget (NPS), Hank Brightman (NWC), and Ellie Bartels (Caerus Associates).

Three main topics were addressed. Far too much was said by both the panel and the audience for me to accurately record here, so instead I’ve briefly summarized some of the major points:

Gaming for DoD Analysis

  • Ellie Bartels: We need to pay more attention to game design in order to be able to convince clients of the value of gaming methodologies.
  • Jeff Appleget: You really need to pay attention to the human element in wargaming. We’ve been too focused on closed-loop combat models.
  • Peter Perla: We need to integrate all the tools in the toolkit. Does DoD have any organizational incentive to listen to games and OR analysis that tells unpleasant truths?
  • John Hanley Jr.: DoD should be gaming everything that involves the interaction of two or more players. Games are useful for developing concepts, identifying capability and intel needs, etc. However no game results can stand without independent substantiation.
  • Hank Brightman: Our greatest challenges as analysts is we work for senior decision-makers from hard science backgrounds that are most comfortable with quantitative data. We need to look at big problems in whole, and use games to provide insights (but not answers).
  • Audience questions, comments, and discussion:
    • Are decision-makers so saturated with analysis that there is only limited capacity for games-based analysis? Can good analysis drive out bad? Who does wargaming best in DoD?
    • Withholding information can help assure that players don’t get lost in the tactical weeds, and instead focus on operational and strategic levels.
    • Almost all of the key insights of wargames are qualitative. However, there was push-back on this, suggested that some quantitative data extraction was also important.

Making a Playable Game

  • Ellie Bartels: Players are human beings, and need to be treated as such and feel their contributions are valuable. We need to be parsimonious in our game design.
  • Jeff Appleget: I have my students actually design a game for a DoD sponsor. They learn the challenges of deriving clarity from the sponsor. Adequate time for playtesting is important, since there is a design/play/revise iteration that is essential.
  • Peter Perla: The closer the game is to familiar functions the easier it is to play. However you need a balance between a simple “talk it through” game, and formalisms that give players an opportunity to discuss how the game models the real world.
  • John Hanley Jr: You get people responsible and place them in a similar environment and they really engage with the game.
  • Hank Brightman: There are two types of game, experiential and analytical, and they have different requirements. We link the designer and the analyst from the beginning.
  • Audience questions, comments, and discussion:
    • It is important not to confuse one type of game with another.
    • We don’t have a common gaming conceptual language.
    • There are lots of folks who design bad games.
      • There is more to truth to analysis. Games are created universes that can encourage insight but aren’t analysis.
    • A game is in the minds of the players, not in the computer or in the table.

The Future of Gaming

  • Ellie Bartels: The future of wargaming will depend a lot on who future wargamers and leaders are. Findings tend to be both complex and abstract, and you need analysts and leaders who are comfortable with that. We need to be multidisciplinary–even into the humanities!
  • Jeff Appleget: The need for games is higher in an era of higher uncertainty. We need to communicate to senior leaders what games can, and cannot, do.
  • Peter Perla: It seems as if gaming is on the rise again—although I’m nervous that it will do its (boom and bust) cycle again. We need to communicate its payoffs and limits. We ought to be able to communicate to future decision-makers with games.
  • John Hanley Jr: My expectation is more of the same. My aspiration is that we devote more effort into making sense out of sets of games. We could be using online gaming to explore a larger chunk of the strategy space.
  • Hank Brightman: We need to bring in folks from other fields. Future analytical gaming needs to use more analytical triangulation and mixed methods. I think that we’ll have a backlash against the impersonalism of some digital gaming and interfaces.
  • Audience questions, comments, and discussion:
    • What is the impact of having commanders who went through wargaming?
    • Distributed gaming on SIPRInet.
    • What is the impact of the current gaming generation?
    • What is the accountability mechanism for learning from game failures, or insights that turned out not to be very insightful?
    • What are gaming worst practices?

MORS 82 summary – Day 1


There’s more to attend at the 82nd annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society than I can fit into my schedule, but here is a quick summary of the presentations I was able to attend today:

Tim Wilkie (NDU) and I made a presentation on The Decision to Attack: Experiments in Small Group Decision-Making to Study the Leadership of Violent Extremist GroupsThis is an exploratory project being developed by Devin Ellis (ICONS Project, UMD), John Sawyer (UMD), John Wilkenfield (UMD), Victor Asal (SUNY Albany), James Walsh (UNC Charlotte) and ourselves that would use a role play simulations to examine the factors shaping decision-making by violent extremist groups. Part of the intent here is to see whether we can replicate, in a simulation/experimental environment, the actual decision-making processes and calculus of known attacks by non-state armed groups. We also hope to develop a role-play test-bed (using ICONSnet) that would allow us to explore how different variables (such as psychological profile, resources, inter-and intra-group competition, set policies, world-view, etc.) might shape the use of violence. At this point we were largely looking for ideas and feedback as we refine the proposal, and certainly found the discussion useful

Ellie Bartels (Caerus Associates) presented on Methods of Social Inquiry for Game Design. She started with a review of how gaming is used in the social sciences, as a pedagogical tool an—less frequently—as an experimental technique. Its use, however, is limited by a perceived lack of rigour. Game theoretical treatments are often too abstract to examine complex issues. Social science may be used as an input into professional gaming of some topics (insurgency, irregular warfare, but unevenly. Also, she noted, there is only limited published work on how social science can inform wargame design.

She argued that games are not really models, because they aren’t fully portable across cases. Rather they are an instantiation of a model, implemented in a very particular context. Decisions in a game may be an input, and output, or both.

She also suggested that games were much more akin to case studies than statistical analysis, because of the unquantifiable nature of decision-making. Because of this, case study research design can help illuminate important aspect of wargame design.

They also parallel formal models, in that they are artificial and can produce emergent behaviours based on formal rules. Most wargames are too complex and multi-sided than most formal modeling. She noted that the more focused the game the stronger the analytical findings will be. There also needs to be some point of comparison. Variables need to be clearly conceptualized, and decisions need to be considered a key variable. Both “most likely” cases and “least likely” cases provide good cases for games. She also highlighted some of the limits of games, including the limits of gaming single cases and problems of selection bias. Games can be useful for theory development, she suggested, but cannot in themselves validate theories.

Jeffrey Appleget (NPS) and Rebecca Dougherty (Lockheed Martin)  delivered a presentation on Assessing the Value of Weather Knowledge within End Use Context, which used a manual wargame to examine not how weather affects military operations, but rather to look at how actors use weather knowledge, and what weather information is important for mission success. In order to avoid any priming bias, participants were not told the wargame was about weather—most, as it turned out, thought it was about the impact of a new weapons system. The game was driven, in many ways, by the degradation of the current array of US military weather satellites, and a fiscal environment in which it will not be possible to continue all weather data collection. In other words, if the US is to lose weather information capacity in coming years, what information and capabilities can most safely be sacrificed?

Finally, I attended a presentation by Katrina Dusek, (NDU) on COIN of the Realm, a counterinsurgency board game designed to illustrate key COIN principles. Two players vie to control territory (physical and conceptual) and to dominate various sectors (such as  security, rule of law/governance, provision of services, and messaging). Players mobilize resources to generate additional capabilities, but in most cases win the game by securing popular support. We all got to give a copy of the game a spin, and I’m pleased to say that in the version I played we insurgents seemed to be on a slow path to victory when play had to come to an end!

Not-quite-live from MORS 82

MORS82This week I’m attending the 82nd annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society. There is much of interest to the professional wargamer or serious conflict simulationist here. In addition to an entire Working Group devoted to wargaming (WG30, ably chaired by Scott Simpkins of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University), there are related working groups on everything from modelling and simulation through to analysis of alternatives; training and education; and social science methods and applications. Indeed, it’s a veritable cornucopia of simulation and analytic milgeekiness.

For many years the MORS symposium was largely NOFORNed—that is, closed to non-US nationals, even those with allied security clearances. That has changed—my rough estimate is that more than two-thirds of the sessions are now open and unclassified this year. Of the classified material, some (although not much) is REL FVEY, meaning the sessions can be attended by allied (UK/Canada/Australia/New Zealand) participants with suitable SECRET clearance (which, as we all know, is hardly any clearance at all)

Among other things I’ll be making a presentation here with Tim Wilkie (NDU) and Devin Ellis (ICONS Project) about a proposed project that a number of us have been working on that will explore decision-making in violent extremist groups through simulation game methodologies.

As the week progresses I’ll try to post periodic summaries of panels and discussions to PAXsims—or, at least, those I’m able to attend (and hotel WiFi permitting)

If you’re a PAXsims reader and attending MORS, drop me an email and perhaps we can grab a coffee!

Has the US navy considered the drawbacks of designing its latest ship “for the video gamer generation?”


CNN published a report today on the US Navy’s new, sophisticated, and somewhat stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyers. Rather than doing any actual investigative reporting on the new ships (for example their $3.5 billion cost per ship–that is, about the same as the annual budget of the entire UK Royal Navy—or questions about their mix of sensors and weapons systems, or even their stability in rough seas), CNN decided to highlight what is clearly most important from an operational and strategic perspective—namely that the ship was designed for the video gamer generation.

Thus the reader is told:

In the operations center — which in many ways is the heart of the ship — sailors are surrounded by an array of video displays that have been designed to be used by a generation raised on video games, Knudson says.

Raytheon tested the technology configuration in the operation center with young, gamer sailors, Knudson says. “We’ve brought them down to our labs and we got direct feedback from them using human-factor engineers in order to make sure that we’ve integrated all the displays and information in a way that they can use the systems most effectively.”


The way all the ship’s weapons, radar and other systems are displayed to users and the captain, Knudson told CNN, “it really give them unprecedented situational awareness.”

That ability is truly going to be a game-changer.


The whole operations center technology array saves manpower by allowing sailors to monitor multiple weapons systems or sensors, Gallagher reported. The Zumwalt, Gallagher wrote, also includes limited wireless networking capability.


…one day it could be fitted with advanced weapons systems that are currently experimental, including a laser weapon and an electromagnetic railgun.

Electromagnetic railguns don’t need to fool around with needless explosive warheads or propellants. These fearsome weapons inflict damage by sheer speed. The gun uses electromagnetic force to blast a missile 125 miles at 7.5 times the speed of sound, according to the Navy.

The laser weapon — which could be fired by one sailor on a video game-like console — is designed to take on aircraft or small surface vessels.

I don’t doubt that (as one would expect) the Zumwalt class has very sophisticated C3I capabilities, and that computerization, automation, and mechanization reduces crew requirements. However, CNN (and the US Navy) appear to have entirely missed all the possible drawbacks of having the “gamer generation” drive and fight their expensive new ship. For example, anyone who has ever played a first-person shooter can imagine all of the following:

  • Gamer-sailors refuse to use some of the most effective weapons systems on the ship, decrying them as “n00b tubes” used only by unskilled combatants. “Sure, we’ve got all these Vertical Launch System cells with Tomahawks, but who uses those? Real sailors run up to a Chinese ship and stab it with a knife.”
  • Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the stealth architecture of the new ships, gamer-sailors view stealthy “camping” as unsportsmanlike. Instead they prefer to rush about at high speed, trash-talking their opponents by radio using the computer-generated voice of a foul-mouthed semi-literate 13 year old.
  • No one worries about the ship’s lack of vulnerability to anti-ship missiles or its lack of a close-in weapons system because of an almost religious belief that they’ll simply “respawn” in San Diego or Norfolk, Virgina if sunk.
  • When bored, crews entertain themselves by ganking newbie navies that haven’t worked out the intricacies of naval combat yet.
  • Someone attaches the ship’s controls to a Xbox Kinect, requiring the crew to prance about in the Operations Centre to operate basic ship’s systems, with often hilarious results.
  • Much time wasted cruising around Pacific looking for “power-ups.”
  • The voice-activation capability of the ship systems means that sailors accidentally sink neutral shipping when casually saying “kill Panamanian tanker” in unrelated conversation.
  • The ship’s “limited wireless networking capability” is constantly overloaded with pirate music downloads and Netflix.
  • The ship insists on having an active internet connection, and becomes obsolete quickly unless the Navy pays for expensive downloadable content.
  • Naval victories rewarded by badges and the ability customize the ship with bling, such as cool (but militarily-counterproductive) colour schemes for the hull.
  • Shortly after ship is ordered into combat for the first time, Captain realizes s/he lost the necessary “activation code.”
  • Rival navies wait a few years and then buy Zumwalt class ships at one-tenth original cost on Steam.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few, so additional suggestions are welcomed.

STAR-TIDES on a HA/DR field exercise

Back in May, the STAR-TIDES blog (“Sharing To Accelerate Research-Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support”) featured a detailed account of a Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief exercise conducted with the 10th Transportation “Waterborne” Battalion, 7th Sustainment Brigade of the US Army:

Throughout the week, we simulated number of scenarios that brought insight, knowledge, and experience to the soldiers and volunteers alike. Members of the battalion gained valuable HA/DR training by distributing urgently needed food supplies, performing non-standard medical evacuation, and meeting with key community leaders. Meanwhile, volunteers tested the soldiers’ ability to manage survivor expectations, and field anger and frustration directed towards them during a disaster. Planning for crowd management is critical to any humanitarian assistance or disaster relief operation.

You’ll find more on the exercise, and the lessons to be learned, here.

Simulations miscellany, 11 June 2014


Some recent items on conflict simulations and serious games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers.

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At Ideas.TED, game designer Brenda Romero discusses how a manual game can illustrate the economic dynamics of undocumented workers in the restaurant industry:

IMG_2489_1024px“There are five players and they’re all restaurant owners. The rules are modeled on real-world economics. Which means that if one of us chooses to use illegal, undocumented labor, pricewise we will destroy everybody else.

In its fourth iteration now, the game is looking at this system that propagates disparity because it needs to, while externally talking about how it’s all wrong. It’s a system that is blind to its brokenness. It’s a system that requires disparity. In play tests, some really unique things happened, right from the prototype. I had glass beads out, those flat marbles you use in vases with flowers, and people just naturally picked up brown ones to go in the kitchen, which was horrifying. They picked up the clear beads to be front of house.

The one point in the game that really bothers me is the disposable nature of the workers when they’re represented by game pieces. This isn’t like Monopoly, where you get a fake $200 bill or four houses. I’m exploring using real people in the game, so that when you hire them you see these real people — not resources, but real people with real lives. If I use real people, I would probably have them waiting around on chairs, just standing in small groups like the guys standing around in front of Home Depot. It should reflect reality — you’re not pulling them out of a bag. I want people to leave this game having a feeling for the actual people behind the system. We see the system as way too abstracted. We caused this problem, it’s because of us.”

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Registration is now open for the Connections 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference. Matt Caffrey has provided this update on this year’s plans:

Colleagues, In recognition of his life time of contributions to national defense and the field of wargaming it is the  unanimous decision of planning team  to dedicate Connections 2014 (Quantico MCB, VA, 4-7 August ) to the memory of Colonel Morgan.

For those of you not lucky enough to know him; as a captain he helped convinced the Air Staff to fund printing commercial style wargames and then designed both, as a Lt Col he let innovative wargaming efforts at Air Command and Staff College and as a civilian he advanced the state of wargaming used to help prepare The Air Forces young Lieutenants and Captains. He was also a successful designer of commercial wargames.  His titles included the very successful Flight Leader. He also contributed to many computer wargames. Lt Col Gary Morgan USAF (ret.) passes away on 21 May. Through sheer luck I was able to attend Mo’s funeral in Alabama.  I was – well – moved by the size of the contingent from the Squadron Officers College.

During Connections  2012  I think it was Ellie Bartels that suggested we add “and sustain” to our original mission of “advance the art, science and application of wargaming.”  Mo’s passing clarifies just how prescient her suggestion was.  Our goal to ensure Connections 2014 is worthy of his memory and effective in passing on knowledge of a field he nobly advanced.

I believe we are on track to reach that goal with Nobel Laureate Professor Thomas Schelling our lead Keynote, excellent tutorials in advance of Connections proper and our most international, our broadest set of speakers to date.  However, Connections has always been about connecting contributors to the field of wargaming.  To be truly successful Connections 2014 needs – you.

With zero registration fee and lodging on base there is nothing we can do to make Connections less expensive.  For those who still cannot attend lice we are working with our marine Corps hosts to make as much of Connections as practical available via VTC

Please go to our website to learn more and register.  Please register as even though there is no fee we need to know how many participants to expect.  Registering for virtual participation lets us know who to contact with instructions on how to connect.

However you can participate you will be contributing to an effort to advance and sustain a field that Mo Morgan spent his life making more effective.  I can think of no better way to honor his memory.


Matt Caffrey

PS. I’ll be at Origins Friday and Saturday. If any of you are attending I hope to see you there.

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Registration is also now open for the 2014 annual conference of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA), to be held in Baltimore on 8-12 October 2014. Details can be found here.
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Zach Morgan’s blog Useful Historian has recently had a couple of articles posted on learning history through boardgames. You’ll find them here:
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On the subject of teaching history with games, have you ever wondered how accurate is the game Crusader Kings 2 in portraying medieval Europe and India? There was an excellent discussion on this a few weeks at Reddit, which examines a number of issues related to history and game design.
h/t Jack McDonald (@jackmcd83)
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After considerable controversy, it has been confirmed that Final Fantasy XIV will enable same-sex marriage by a player character in a forthcoming patch.

That, of course, will place the  fictional world of Eorzea ahead of thirty US states….


Review of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012)

Freedom: The Underground Railway. Academy Games, 2012. Game designer: Brian Mayer. $70.00.

It has been awhile since I could game and I was looking forward to trying this cooperative experience, so when Aram suggested we get together for dinner and some Freedom, and Julie agreed to suffer through it and Deb was on board, I was delighted we’d get a chance to play “Freedom: The Underground Railroad“. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a cooperative game, for 1 to 4 players, about the abolitionist movement in the antebellum American South. Players take on roles in the Underground Railroad, trying to move slaves from plantations in the South to freedom in Canada. If you’re not familiar with the actors, Aram is my gaming buddy, conveniently located around the corner and always up for a good game. Julie and Deb tolerate us both, Julie spends most of her time tolerating me and Deb is tasked with tolerating Aram. We started the game a little late, so the review below might be affected by how tired we all were, though it was no doubt positively influenced by the great Indian food, the good hospitality from Deb and Aram and the great soundtrack that Aram put together for the event.

Basically, the game revolves around moving slaves (wooden cubes) along four or five waypoints on a dozen paths, while slavecatchers move semi-autonomously across the paths, around the border between North and South. In the easy game, for four players, you try to save 22 slaves without losing 20 (and there are some other particularly pernicious victory conditions). If the slavecatchers end in a city with a slave, they send them back to the slave market. Meanwhile, every turn, tragically, a new shipment of slaves floods the markets in the south. You see, if you can’t move slaves out of the plantations fast enough, the supply outstrips the demand and slaves are “lost”. The poignancy of calamitous waves of “excess supply” of humans and the subsequent losses weren’t lost on the group, three lawyers, three of us with economics degrees. It is a tough subject to model in a game and kudos to the game designers for making it playable and interesting with such a difficult subject matter. In any event, with cooperative planning, players attempt to fundraise and gather support for the abolitionist movement (what better place than Capitol Hill to lobby and fundraise?), while using precious few actions to move slaves up the paths, all the while avoiding the slavecatchers. Each of the players has a role and commensurate strengths (a la Pandemic), I was the shepherd and it was cheaper for me to take the tokens that could move slaves, Julie was the station manager and could stop the slavecatchers from moving, Aram was the financier and rallied most of our support, Deb’s power was buying cards cheaper.

I’m going to cut to the chase – we lost. It is a really tough game, we seemingly made only a few minor mistakes early on and we ended up getting completely overwhelmed by the slave markets and the constant flow of slaves into the plantations in the south, to the point that we had to choose at the end between rallying support for the cause or getting people out of the plantations to make room for the next slave shipment. We needed both to win, but it wasn’t clear we could accomplish either. No doubt once the group knows better, they can do better (just happen to be listening to this while writing that line). But, I don’t want to spend a lot of this post on the play by play and I want to be clear, as a game, I think it is a good one, there are lots of interesting choices and it has a nice design (if you want a nice review of it is a board game, look here). But I want to focus on what I think is most interesting to our audience here at Paxsims: the educational merits and how that affects the link between theme and game design.

So, to me, Freedom is a game about building a movement, building support and fundraising to accomplish a collective goal. It delivers some of that. The tension between getting slaves actually moving to safety and “using” slaves in northern cities to rally support for the cause through financial support is strong, it reminds us that good intentions alone are insufficient to accomplish the noblest of goals (yes, you get more money for the cause bringing a slave through New York than you get routing them through Detroit). It also delivers lots of historical information through the cards. So would I recommend it as an educational tool for a classroom or family trying to better understand slavery?

Probably not.

Again, I think it is a great game, as a boardgame. If you are tired of Pandemic and want to play a challenging co-op, this is a great alternative. But I found the physics of the game, interesting as they were (basically careful strategizing about how to move slaves to pull slavecatchers and avoid capture), distracting from the theme. Players spend much more time thinking about how to move slaves like checkers to maximize fundraising and control the slavecatchers then they spend celebrating freed slaves or worrying about who might get caught (from a random die roll). Yet, the story of the Underground Railroad is so powerful – it wasn’t a calculated, centrally controlled logistics challenge of how to move people, it was real people taking real risks, deciding whether they could trust strangers to lead them to safety, or whether they wanted to risk their own lives to help others. It was subterfuge and conspiracy and concealment and hiding in barns and grasping for a few hours of refuge after walking 20 miles a day to safety. I felt very little of these tensions while playing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there were real people, slavers and plantation owners and “decent folks” engaged on the other side, publishing notices in newspapers and sending bounty hunters and packs of dogs to reclaim their property. Maybe I’ve been a social scientist for too long, but I flinch at efforts to reduce adversarial human behavior to predictable response paths and random action (insert joke about economists here, Rex). I’d prefer to see an adversarial game where slavecatchers are working against the Railroad and both “sides” are trying to outsmart each other.

Maybe my critique is just because it is a cooperative game, built against difficult odds and a stacked deck as cooperative games have to be. I’ll definitely try the game again, but I don’t think it will ever be as satisfying as it would be knowing there were people on a red team in the next room playing “Oppression: Preserving our Way of Life”, deciding how they were going to move their bounty hunters on rumors of my slave on the run and whether they were going to use their profits as plantation owners to lobby Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In a classroom, I’d rather see students taking on these roles, choosing when to run, when to pursue, trying to sustain a plantation, investing in a risky movement. Maybe that subject matter is too difficult for a game, but maybe a game isn’t the right vehicle, then, for that subject matter?

Review: Starkey et al, International Negotiation in a Complex World

074256679XBrigid Starkey, Mark A. Bowyer, and Jonathan Wilkenfeld, International Negotiation in a Complex World 3rd ed. Lanhan, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. $29.95 pb.

This book neither contains simulations, nor it is primarily about the application of gaming methodologies. Instead, it is an introductory undergraduate university textbook on the dynamics of international negotiations. It seemed worth of a short review on PAXsims, however, for two reasons. First, gaming metaphors are used to structure the thematic organization of the volume. Second, the appendix contains some brief discussion off the use of simulations as active learning in the study of international relations, with particular emphasis on the ICONS Project.

Following a general introduction to the topic of negotiations in international relations, the book moves on to examine “the board” (namely, the international system and the way it shapes international negotiation, as well as the relevant factors shaping particular negotiations), “the players” (both states and transnational actors), “the stakes” (issues, issue salience, and two-level negotiation), “the moves”” (strategic choices, with some application of game theory), and outcomes (including a brief case study of the US and Iraq). Through, key terms and concepts are clearly identified and explained, and text boxes provide additional examples. There might have been a little more integration of the research literature on negotiations, but overall I found it to be a well-crafted volume that would serve well in the classroom. The gaming metaphor works well, and is one that will help students make sense of the negotiation process.

The appendix on ICONS provides students with a basic understanding of how the ICONSnet website and software works. It might have been useful if this discussion had been broadened a bit and made a little less ICONS-specific, so that it might serve as well for courses that use other negotiation simulations. Still, as this brief section shows, ICONS is certainly well suited to teaching negotiation.


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