Matrix games are a type of free-form game in which each player, in turn, makes an argument about a particular course of action and the effects they expect that action would have if successful. Additional arguments for and against this are then made by other players. The success of the proposed action is then either adjudicated by the umpire, or resolved by a dice roll and a series of modifiers reflecting the arguments for and against. The next player then takes his/her action on the basis of this new situation, and the game thus continues. Game play may take place around a map and pieces/counters/units as game aids, or may be entirely abstract. Because events unfold according to a series of successful actions, arguments, and effects, it unfolds very much as a narrative of the scenario being explored.
Yesterday I had an opportunity to play a game a matrix game of the situation in northern Iraq, ably facilitated by Tom Mouat. Our ten players assumed the roles of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, Da’ish, or the “Islamic State”), the Iraqi central government led by Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abidi, the Sunni opposition, the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran, and the United States. In addition I played the “spirit of inshallah,” who each turn could argue for a likely action or effect that other players had not proposed.
We used a pair of dice for adjudication, with 7+ required for success, with the dice modified by +/-1 for every plausible argument or counter-argument generated by players.
Each team was provided with a one page briefing that outlined their situation and major goals. One of the innovations in the game was that each also started with an “initial condition” that affected their play. Thus the Iraqi central government suffered penalties to its dice rolls to reflect the poor performance of its military forces as well as the absence of an agreed government/cabinet; the Kurds suffered a penalty to reflect PUK-KDP political rivalries; ISIL was able to take the occasional bonus move to reflect its political momentum; and so forth.
The game was intended solely for the purposes of giving players an opportunity to experience the methodology, not for any official or policy purposes. Nevertheless it was conducted under Chatham House rules. The players included a couple of scholars of Middle East politics, a foreign ministry official, some current or former intelligence or defence analysts, and quite a few experienced wargamers—an opportunity group of friends and colleagues, but a quite skilled and well-informed one. Gameplay itself took a little over two hours. The game map and generic pieces used in the game are reproduced at left and below (click images to expand).
The ISIL (or ISIS) Crisis
The game started off with Washington contemplating airstrikes in support of Iraqi troops fighting against the self-styled “Islamic State” near Tikrit, but ultimately choosing not to go ahead with these. Throughout the US team was cautious about becoming too deeply involved in an Iraqi quagmire. Later some US Special Forces were sent to the country, and—after some extended discussions with the Iraqi government—ended up conducting cautious reconnaissance of ISIL positions. A terrorist attack struck the US Navy in the Persian Gulf (for which ISIL claimed responsibility), but this has little impact on American policy.
ISIL itself decided to launch an offensive towards Karbala through the sparsely populated areas to the northwest and west. This was intended largely as a feint and diversion, but it caught the Iraqi Army by surprise, which quickly routed. Much to everyone’s surprise, ISIL then defeated the Shiite militias in the city, causing a massive out-flow of terrified refugees.
Prime Minister Abidi oscillated between efforts to form a national unity government and building up troops for a counter-offensive. Iran sent arms, advisors, humanitarian aid. At the request of the Kurds, some Iranian combat units also entered Iraqi Kurdistan. Secretly the Kurds had cut side deals with both Iran and ISIL which enabled the Peshmerga to recapture Mosul but also saw most ISIL units leave the city to battle elsewhere.
The Iraqi Prime Minister’s effort to broaden the base of the Iraqi government bore some fruit when the Sunni opposition—attracted by the offer of future political decentralization and an equitable share of oil resources—abandoned their erstwhile jihadist allies. Heavy fighting soon followed as local Sunni tribal militias and ISIL militants fought for control of the border crossings into Syria. US airstrikes and a covert supply of US weapons to the anti-ISIL tribal fights tipped the fighting slightly towards the latter, although ISIL reinforcements continued to arrive from Syria to keep the fighting going.
At the same time, Baghdad launched two major offensives, Operation Heavenly Sword and Son of Heavenly Sword. The first bogged down amid poor planning and logistics (ie, a poor dice roll). The latter, however, eliminated most of the ISIL fighters in Karbala amid widespread destruction and atrocities on both sides.
The game ended with ISIL weaker but still a significant threat. The Sunni opposition, although now allied with the Iraqi central government, remained deeply suspicious of Baghdad. The Iranians had gained greater influence in the country, and were stalling on a Kurdish request that they withdraw their forces from Kurdistan. The US had become more deeply involved in military action, but had remained cautious, had not deployed major ground forces, and had exerted only limited influence on events.
For its part, the Iraqi government called for major talks between all parties—including, indirectly, ISIL—on national reconciliation. This received a lukewarm response from some. It also split the Shiite community, with many Iraqi militia leaders arguing that it was pointless to talk with extremists and favouring instead stepped up military action against their Sunni jihadist foes.
Although I had watched and dabbled with matrix games a few times, this was the first one I had fully participated in and played through until the end.
- The methodology is very flexible, and games can be quickly designed and conducted. Effective game play is highly dependent on a skilled facilitator, however. (Tom, fortunately, is very good.) It also needs players who are willing to accept the lack of formal rules. As one observer noted, it probably would have helped to have had a trial turn before the proper game started.
- Like most games—and, indeed, history itself—there is a significant degree of built-in path dependency. This can be a problem if players don’t roleplay well, try to get too clever, or manage to pull off an unrealistic or implausible action early in the game (possibly through a lucky dice roll if that system of adjudication is used), thereby skewing the game in a particular direction. In our game, I didn’t think that the ISIL conquest of Karbala—a large, religiously symbolic, and very, very Shiite city—was at all realistic. I also thought that the government strategy of allowing ISIL attacks of Karbala as a way of mobilizing Shi’ite outrage was too risky to be feasible.
- Of course, an umpire can rule against actions that are thought to be too unrealistic. However, if the game is too directed it merely ends up reproducing the views and possible biases of the adjudicator. Moreover, it also risks excluding interesting “black swans” and other low probability/high impact events. After all, few if any analysts had predicted that (Sunni) Mosul would fall so easily to ISIL earlier this year.
- I think it helped to have a neutral, subject matter expert player to periodically nudge the game back to a more “realistic” course or to try to make sure that various important consequences of actions are represented in the game. It would also be useful to have a discussion and consequence management phase at the end of each turn to address what had happened and what additional second and third order effects actions might have.
- The physical layout of the game matters. In our case the map and proliferation of military unit markers may have predisposed some players to think in military rather than political terms. On the other hand, the game did nicely illustrate the difficulty of undertaking political initiatives and reforms amid an ongoing security crisis.
- The choice of roles and players matters a lot. We had deliberately chosen tow knowledgeable (and devious) participants to play ISIL. Had others been playing the role it might have all turned out rather differently. We had also limited the number of roles to six for practical reasons. The absence of the Syrian government and various Syrian opposition groups from the game had the clear consequence of biasing us towards an Iraq-centric focus on ISIL. The absence of a Turkish player may have also given the Kurds greater free rein than in real life.
- Even where game play diverged from the most likely course of events in Iraq, it provided considerable material for discussion. Tocite just a few of the issues that arose during our two hours of play:
- How decentralized is ISIL? How vulnerable is it to leadership casualties? Have its recent successes been part of an central campaign plan, or rather rapid exploitation of local successes by local commanders?
- How cohesive and fanatical is ISIL? Could parts of the organization be lured away with promises of political decentralization in Iraq? (I think not, but in our game Baghdad clearly hoped to do so.)
- How easily can ISIL mask major troop movements from allied ISR, or otherwise complicate targeting? To what extent can it support operations away from its Sunni population base?
- What domestic constraints exist on US policy? Would an ISIL-linked act of terrorism deter greater American involvement, encourage it, or (as in the game) have little effect?
A critical question, of course, is whether two+ hours of matrix gaming provided more insight into these and other issues than would have been derived from a BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) of similar duration. I am not convinced that the game was better—indeed, having recently participated in an official/classified meeting on the topic, I thought the latter discussion was more productive. The game did, however, provide a different, and perhaps more enjoyable, perspective. Consequently, matrix gaming does have some value as a sort of alternative analysis exercise intended to shift analysts out of traditional and more comfortable thought processes. It can also serve to break up the monotony of a long seminar-type discussion, and encourage participants to interact and network in different ways.
Finally, the approach can easily be replicated and repeated. By doing so, more of the possible problem space be mapped. If key actions or questions repeatedly occur in games drawing upon different participants this would also suggest key questions, indicators, and potential courses of action worthy of additional analytical attention.
* * *
For more on this approach, see Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, a newly-published booklet by John Curry and Tim Price. We’ll be reviewing it soon here at PAXsims. You also find a much more detailed write-uo of the game at John’s History of Wargaming Project website, and a very useful set of reflections by Ben Taylor elsewhere at PAXsims.
A recent version of the ISIS Crisis materials can be found on Tom Mouat’s website.