Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Toward serious matrix games

In recent weeks PAXsims has reviewed a new book on Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, and also offered an after action review of a recent matrix game in the UK that examined the current political and military situation in northern Iraq. Today we’re pleased to feature a guest blog post by Ben Taylor in which he further explores the value of such games for policy analysis and decision support.

Ben Taylor is Team Leader for Strategic Planning Operations Research at the Centre for Operational Research and Analysis, Defence Research and Development Canada. The views expressed below are those of the author and not necessarily those of DRDC.

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Matrix games exist in a space between conventional rules-based wargames and role-playing games. Rather than have complex rules to cover all the possible actions players can undertake matrix games tend to be very light on rules and instead allow players to make structured arguments as to what actions are undertaken and what results occur. The players, guided by an umpire as to what is plausible or probable, collectively built a narrative. Since players can make arguments as to why another player’s proposed course of action will, or will not, succeed the game has elements of both cooperation and competition.

Matrix games can be liberating in that they avoid the need for lots of charts and tables and complex calculations to resolve actions. If the players and umpire agree that something is plausible and likely to work, then it is likely that it will work and the umpire can rule on whether it turns out as planned by a single roll of the dice. This construct allows players who understand the context of a game very well to explore the situation very quickly without cumbersome game mechanics. On the other hand, as Hollywood action movies teach us, historical accuracy and the laws of physics can be set aside in favour of a good story line. If too much violence is done to reality then a matrix game, however much fun to play, will provide the players with few useful insights into the subject of the game. How then do we design a matrix game that is useful as a serious tool?

Games for experts

Real experts in a subject may not need the artificial construct of a matrix game to have a meaningful and useful discussion on the subject. They may find however that the competitive structure of the game does force them to think through strategies and their strengths and weaknesses. For such a group the role of the umpire is simply to translate the interaction between the players into the matrix argument format and to let the players drive the game.

Games without experts

When setting up a game with a group of players who are not experts in the subject of the game, or who have a mix of levels of expertise, then the designer has other issues to consider. Do non-expert players need more or less discussion around the game? On the one hand they are less familiar with the scenario and the actors and so would benefit from building more shared understanding. On the other hand non-experts talking to one another could just lead to groupthink and building a consensus around false assumptions.

It is likely that more thought need be given to keeping the players grounded in the subject without them feeling overly constrained.

Providing players with a rich ‘primer’ of background information will make it easier to role-play. Time spent creating the ‘back story’ for even actors in fictitious conflicts will likely be time well spent. The primer should provide a rich context from which to role-play rather than just the key elements of the current situation and objectives.

Non-player roles

Three distinct non-player roles can be identified in matrix games. Each of which is critical in ensuring a useful outcome from a serious game:

  • Game owner – the individual for whom the game is being run. This could be the boss if it is being used for a training application or a study director if the game forms part of an analysis exercise.
  • Game controller (or umpire) – the individual charged with making the game work, to administer the rules and to make assessments on the resolution of actions.
  • White Cell – one or more individual subject matter experts (SMEs) who provide injects into the game to maintain realism.

The game controller is critical to the success of any matrix game. The skills required include those of a facilitator – to ensure that everyone gets to speak at the appropriate time and nobody dominates –as well as the arbiter of all of the arguments proposed by players. It is essential that the game controller is even-handed and consistent in his or her rulings and application of the rules so that they do not skew the flow of the game. A good game controller can coach less experienced players without guiding their play, which will help the game achieve its intended purpose. The controller may allow a practice round of arguments to help players settle in before starting the game proper. This would help avoid any poor first turn choices by inexperienced players.

The game owner should resist the temptation to inject new events into the game (e.g. “the bridge being used by the aid convoys has collapsed”)? This may be useful in forcing players to investigate specific problems, but on the other hand the owner can be accused of forcing a preferred result or conclusion. The former issue may be a positive in a training or education context, but the latter is troublesome in an analytical game.

The white cell (which could be one or more people depending upon the scale of the game) should be able to inject events, or even introduce new arguments and/or reasons into the game. This would be less problematic than allowing the owner to intervene as the white cell’s role is to make sure the game has the right ‘look and feel’, not that it achieves a preconceived result. Nudging the game toward realistic course of events may be necessary from time to time.

The game controller should not be able to inject events or argument as his/her role is to run the game mechanics. The only exceptions would be:

  • If it is made clear that the umpire is also the white cell and is so permitted to add reasons for or against player actions.
  • The scenario has scripted actions (e.g. if the capital falls then new rebel units immediately appear, or on turn 4 a flood washes away the bridge to the northern province).

Pregame actions

In some cases players could be allowed one or more pregame actions. These would be limited to setting precedents for later and could not be used to change the physical start state of the scenario or to counter any special bonuses or penalties described in the scenario briefing materials. In many cases these could be interpreted as clarifying the start state where the scenario briefing materials are silent. For example the following arguments could be made:

  • Action: NATO has deployed a naval task group to the area. Result: +1 on future actions supported by air strikes or amphibious forces
  • Action: Insurgency has infiltrated Army command. Result: -1 on future army actions to target insurgency units.

The reason for doing this would be to allow players to refine the starting situation before anyone starts making actions to move or attack anywhere. Once this happens other players may feel forced to respond with their own moves. Some players may be in a position where they could gain advantage by forcing the game to quickly escalate on turn one.

There should be limits on the number of such actions and a number of them may be secret actions (i.e. known only to the player and the controller). The umpire, white cell and game owner might need to have the ability to veto pre-game arguments.

Scenario Design

The design of the scenario, that is the description of the starting situation and any maps and playing pieces used to depict the situation, is clearly critical in providing the context through which the players interact. Very careful thought needs to be given to what information is provided as it may shape player perceptions and lead them to certain courses of action. For example, if one described a failed state intervention scenario and put lots of refugee markers on the map that may guide players into treating it as primarily a humanitarian mission. But if the same scenario was described but players shown no refugee markers but lots of hidden weapon cache markers then that may cause players to treat it as a counter-insurgency mission?

Is there a type of scenario that a matrix game is particularly well-suited (or poorly suited) to? Strictly one-sided (government vs. nature in a domestic disaster relief operation), two-sided, multi sided, straight forward shooting war, complex hybrid failed state environment? The opportunity for direct interactions between players to cut deals would suggest that this game type is well suited to multi-sided complex operating environments. Conversely using them for two-sided combat scenarios may be a weaker application (although examples of these have been played in the recreational gaming community). Note that it is always possible to convert a one-sided or two-sided scenario into a multi-sided scenario by splitting sides up into factions that are competing at some level and which may have slightly different objectives (e.g. different allied nations of a coalition, different services, different government agencies or political leaders within the same nation).


A matrix game may be a powerful tool in exploring the dynamics of a scenario through forcing them to articulate arguments as to what would happen and thus build a narrative. If the intention is to draw observations for serious purposes or to use the game to teach an understanding of the scenario then there are steps that can be taken to make the game more robust. Game designers must always keep in mind why the game is being run in the first place.

Ben Taylor 

One response to “Toward serious matrix games

  1. Tom Mouat 10/10/2014 at 10:30 am

    I have to say, as one of the co-authors of Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, that I found this one of the most helpful articles on Matrix Games I have seen – the articulation of insights that have been tugging away at the dim corners of my brain is simply excellent and I’m very grateful!

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