Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections UK 2014 SITREP


The 2014 edition of the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference began yesterday with a half day of Wargaming 101 (an introduction to the topic for non-experts). Today the main show got underway with the opening of the conference itself. Some 111 persons registered this year, making it the third-largest Connections conference ever. Of these, almost 30% were from outside the UK:

  • UK 79
  • Netherlands 11
  • Sweden 6
  • US 5
  • Canada 3
  • France 2
  • Germany 2
  • Italy 1
  • Norway 1
  • Finland 1

photoPhil Sabin and Graham Longley-Brown started off the conference with a few comments. Graham highlighted the “fragility” of wargaming within the UK defence sector, arguing that at the moment expertise was too shallow and too dependent on key personalities. Consequently there is a need to deepen and institutionalize wargaming competency. Judging from a show of hands in the room, about one-third of those attending were from outside the UK. While a large number of those in the room were involved in the defence sector in some way (for example, through DSTL), only three or four were currently serving, uniformed members of the services.

The first panel, chaired by Major General (Retd) Andrew Sharpe, examined how the British Army uses wargaming. He agreed that wargaming in the UK military was weak. Effective wargaming, he suggested, usually involves an adaptive opponent, elements of chance and uncertainty, and repetition—although he implied that wasn’t always true of British military wargaming. He also suggested that wargaming was very useful in developing the ability to officers to provide leadership and concepts in warfare.

He also suggested that last year’s Connections UK conference had contributed to greater interest in, and momentum for, wargaming within the British military.

Maj Mark Nooney (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst) noted that Sandhurst did little or no wargaming, but had decided to bring it into the syllabus as a third way of training, to reinforce lessons taught in the classroom, challenge preconceptions, and to provide experience with Clausewitzian “friction” and an adversarial opponent. The Sandhurst Wargame will be a very simple hex-based wargame that will be linked to tactical exercises. Wargames will linked to historical analysis too. RMAS has also restarted the Sandhurst Wargaming Club, although at present it seemed as if only a small number of cadets participated in this.

Maj Marcus Myles (Directorate of Land Warfare) discussed Course of Action wargaming as part of the military planning process. He argued that this often took place amid time pressures, an unfamiliarity with the process, and an unwillingness to unpick one’s own plan. Efforts are underway to familiarize officers with a broader array of wargaming techniques, including the use of stochastic processes (including the use of dice) to represent risk and uncertainty.

Lt Col Ivor Gardiner (CO, 2 R Irish) highlighted a continuing problem of credibility. Wargaming is still viewed as immature, and officer cadets do not always take military history and war studies very seriously. Wargaming can be a very effective, immersive, experiential method, and (hobby) wargamers tend to come into the military with an innate sense of tactics, operations, and the estimate process. He argued that traditional adversarial wargaming had significant advantages over TEWT (tactical exercises without troops), CPXs (command post exercises), COA wargaming, and digital wargaming. He discussed his own use of Advanced Squad Leader to teach platoon- and company-level operations, as well as a few other games, including A Distant Plan to explore the complex operational environment in Afghanistan (“more insights into Afghanistan than all the reading material we are given”). It is good for officers to lose from time to time, in an atmosphere of competitive fun. He also argued that wargaming needs to start at Sandhurst, it needs to be simple, standardized, adaptable, and immersive.

Colin Marston (DSTLstressed the need for UK MOD to establish a Wargaming Hub.  The Hub would act as the primary point of contact for customers within UK MOD.  It would be a one stop shop for collating, understanding and developing wargaming requirements.  The Hub would have the necessary wargaming expertise and networks (e.g. through events such as Connections) to provide both advice on how to meet the requirements and what links to draw from within UK MOD, industry and academia to deliver wargaming activities.  The existence of a Wargaming Hub would create a place to develop and maintain a corporate knowledge base, and record observations, insights and lessons from the delivery of numerous wargaming activities.  He also stressed that more was needed to be done to sustain and develop a cadre of experienced professional wargamers within UK MOD – and any advice on how to do this would be welcomed.     

In subsequent discussion there was some argument for “gamification” and peer rankings as a way of increasing participation and engagement, although others noted that it could create perverse incentives to participate.

Some of the panelists made arguments in favour of board wargames, arguing that military audiences are more open to using maps and counters than tabletop figure wargaming. One also argued that boardgames had an advantage over digital games in that rules and concepts were evident in the written rules and game system, rather than hidden is software code.

After a coffee break, the conference split into two groups. One (by invitation) explored wargaming requirements in defence. The other provided hands-on experience with a wargame. As an introduction to the latter, Phil Sabin discussed his own use of wargames, including a recent WWI game that formed part of a conference on the war. He focused on the challenge of gaming with many players. Does one use an umpired kriegsspiel model? Or simplify the games and rules so that players can play the game with minimal assistance?

This led into the simple double-blind wargame of the WWI Schlieffen Plan that we all played. I was up against Jim Wallman—the first game (as the Germans) I narrowly lost due to my failure to properly garrison Liege. On the second game my Allied forces retreated all the way back to the gates of Paris before launching a devastating counteroffensive that routed several German Army corps and left much of the enemy’s remaining forces spent and unable to hold their ground.

After lunch, Jeremy Smith (Cranfield University) chaired a panel that examined business wargaming. Arnoud Franken (Cranfield University) discussed “crossing the chasm” to regular use of wargaming. One recent study found that while 17% of major businesses might use wargaming or scenario development as an ad hoc analytical process, none use it regularly. Businesses, however, face risks, challenges, threats, opportunities, etc.—the sorts of things that militaries face too, and which wargames can be useful in exploring. Wargaming can thus be sold in the business world as a tool for risk or crisis management. In selling wargaming to business, the latter will want to know about relative cost and advantage (compared to other techniques); the compatibility of the tool with the way the business operates; how simple (or complex) is it to use; whether the tool be tried before full adoption (trialability); and finally, how observable is the technique (and how does the activity look to others)?

Sara Ulrich (Deloitte) discussed the use of wargames in business, especially by Deloitte. Such games have addressed everything from health care policy, to new product launches, pricing and market strategy, cyberattacks, the Eurozone crisis, nuclear energy safety, the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the London 2012 Olympics, and the World Cup. In 2010 Deloitte acquired Simulstrat, KCL proof-of-concept company that applies wargames techniques to business and other analysis. I was particularly interested in the multi-sector humanitarian crisis wargame done for the Humanitarian Futures Programme at KCL. The scenario was set in a future (fictional) humanitarian crisis in the Ferghana Valley in 20135. Her very rich presentation noted, among other things, that experiential pay-offs from games often have to do with human interaction.

Hans Steensma joined the subsequent panel discussion. There was some discussion of who suffered more from hierarchical constraints (most seemed to think business could be even worse than the military). A couple of speakers mentioned the value of designing games around the potential problems or challenges that keep (businesses, managers, etc) “awake at night.” One audience member asked about the pricing of business wargaming, and whether it was within the reach of small and medium businesses. (I must admit, some of the discussion convinced me that I really need to charge a lot more as a wargame consultant/designer…)

Next, the conference participants took part in one of five breakout sessions. After an hour or so of discussion, these returned to brief back to the full group.

The first breakout group looked at the objectives and payoffs of wargaming. They identified a number of these, including anticipating impact (“what’s possible?”), clarifying resources needs, clarifying goals and objectives, examining trade-offs and opportunity costs, team-building, identifying what one doesn’t (yet) know—and having fun (as a way of increasing participant engagement). The second breakout group discussed game facilitation and umpiring. They highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, the need to be seen to be unbiased (but not passive), the importance of maintaining the aim of the event (which requires sufficient domain knowledge and the possible aid of a subject matter expert, but too much expertise risks an imposition of umpire bias). The third group examined existing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) versus purpose-designed wargames. Here the central point they emphasized was the need to first know what it is one wanted a game or simulation to do. They discussed the potential use of hybrid games, in which commercial games are adapted for particular professional uses. The game needs to be adaptable to, and relevant to, real-world situations. The fourth group explored the challenges of validation and verification. This highlighted the problem of players “playing the game/software” to elicit a win. The group also pointed to the importance of clarity of purpose, good quality data, and repeatable outputs. They noted the challenge presented by classified data that may not be releasable. Finally, they emphasized the importance of “fitness for purpose” and end-user credibility. Finally, the last group reported on BOGSATs versus expert opinion vs. scientific analysis vs. gaming. This group decided that all of these approaches could be useful, and that much depended on context (resources) and objectives. Planning and facilitation was very important in making best use of subject matter expertise, but one needed to be careful of the “factualness of facts” and experts who seemed excessively confident of their insight and knowledge. It was suggested that BOGSATs, rather than being a rival to gaming, might be a useful entry point for the introduction of gaming methodologies.

Overall, all groups came to the conclusion that there was little fundamental difference between military and business wargaming. There also seemed to be agreement that games needed to be designed around objectives, and that there was value in breaking out of disciplinary and organizational silos to link tools to needs and purposes.

Matt Caffrey (USAF) chaired an afternoon panel on how other militaries use wargaming. A presentation by Erik Nordstrand examined wargaming in the Swedish military for training, education, planning, and decision support. Johan Elg then provided an overview of wargames in military education and training. One such game was a board/map game on battalion mechanized operations; another was a simplified naval surface warfare digital game; a third was a digital air operations game. Students play these games (and others, such as VBS2) at the cadet, staff college, and senior staff college level. The presentations certainly left the impression of more wargaming in Swedish military education than had previously been described as being the case in the UK. Lt Col Sébastien de Preyet talked about wargaming in French military education and training. France has been using more and more wargaming and simulation tools, in part to reduce training costs. Industry-provided digital simulations are used, as well as adapted COTS software (with adaptation often involve enhancing its after action review capabilities). He noted the cultural confusion that can exist with regard to serious gaming and gaming, such that senior leaders associate “wargaming” with popular entertainment video games. Boardgames are rarely used in France and are often unfamiliar to French officers. He warned that for too many senior officers and officials, “heavy and expensive systems look serious,” and “3D looks smart” but that officers who will be planning and operating in 2D (map) environments need to be trained in that context. He mentioned the tension and biases involved in the boardgame vs digital game communities, and stressed that the two should not be bifurcated. Games, he stressed, were excellent supports for operational self-training. He also discussed Urban Operations, a boardgame he has designed to address the particular challenges of urban combat.

Matt himself talked about wargame use in the US military. Games were used to develop strategists (education and training), embedded within decision cycles (such as national strategic planning, theatre campaign planning, and Title X service-level force planning), or might be one-off games to address particular issues. Games could be deterministic or stochastic, rules-based or judgment-based, and constructive, virtual, or live. Stephen-Downes Martin (US Naval War College) addressed why we should care about how others wargame, arguing that it was a useful intelligence insight. He argued that we didn’t know enough about how some countries (such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran) and even non-state actors wargame, and suggested some very useful ways in which we might think about how different actors game.

SPW-B101-2The final session of the day was a keynote address by COL David Schroeder (Schroeder Publishing and Wargames). He suggested that stories are powerful teaching tools, and that stories about military operations are often applicable to business—a point that he makes in his book Business in the Trenches. However, stories can only take us so far. Wargaming offers deeper insight, helping to identify strength, weakness, and best options—all in a competitive environment of pressure and limited time and information. Businesses can thus benefit from wargaming techniques in developing winning strategies. However, effective business wargaming requires instruction, mentorship, and practice. Both military and business wargamers, he suggested, needed better training, and make it a requirement for senior leadership. The core issues for many simulations include critical or bottleneck resources, fundamental cause/effect relationships, core processes, and having a clear picture of the operating environment. He examined these in the context of his Der Weltkrieg series of WWI games.

After dinner it was time for the games fair. I once again demonstrated the Humanitarian Crisis Game, ably assisted by two former McGill University students now living in London, Elizabeth Campbell and Nadimah Mohammed. The game went very well, with the players doing a very good job of providing humanitarian assistance to the earthquake-stricken population of Carana, and the government (led by Paul Strong) quick to respon to emerging political and security challenges. Everyone was a winner except for the unfortunate NGO player (Colin Marston), whose had difficulty attracting press attention and hence the necessary public support and donations for his relief programmes.

Playing the Humanitarian Crisis Game.

(For a report on the final day of the conference, see here.)

4 responses to “Connections UK 2014 SITREP

  1. Phil Sabin 11/09/2014 at 7:43 am

    Yes, thanks for the detailed and complimentary reports, Rex. Note that there were actually quite a few serving military present – your smaller figure refers only to UK military not present as speakers.

  2. Graham Longley-Brown 05/09/2014 at 5:24 am

    The methods in Mark’s book were briefly discussed in the Business Wargaming session as being at one end of the complexity/cost spectrum, with Ben Gilad’s ‘Business War Games’ proposing methods at the simple/cheap end. Both authors hoped to attend Connections UK but couldn’t make it across. They sent their best wishes and are part of the ‘Connections community’.
    Graham LB
    P.S. Thanks, Rex, for the comprehensive coverage.

  3. Rex Brynen 04/09/2014 at 4:00 am

    Although Urban Operations was set up next to me at the games fair, I was too busy running the Humanitarian Crisis Game to have a close look. The map looked nice, though!

    The Herman book was mentioned in passing. Personally, I’m always a little nervous when gaming is oversold as a methodology–I think it is very useful, but has its shortcomings too,

  4. brtrain 03/09/2014 at 7:14 pm

    Thanks for the report Rex! And I’m glad that COL Gardiner found A Distant Plain useful.
    Also interested in LCOL de Preyet’s board game on urban operations, a topic I’ve always wanted to explore in greater detail (more than some recent magazine wargames that have appeared, less than SPI’s old Cityfight) – did he give any details?
    Also, was mention made of Mark Herman’s fairly recent book on business and wargaming? I ahve read neither his nor Dave Schroeder’s book, but there might be interesting comparisons and contrasts.
    Sorry I can’t be there!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: