Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections Australia 2015 AAR


I had the pleasure this past week of attending the Connections Australia 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at the University of Melbourne. Approximately 50 people participated in the event over two days.

Day 1

Monday was devoted to presentations. Following an introduction by Todd Mason, I started with an overview of the development and expansion of Connections wargaming conferences in the US, UK, and elsewhere.


Marcus Tregenza (DST Group) then provided an overview of the recent MORS special meeting on professional gaming. He emphasized the high degree of engagement by the conference sponsors, and the current emphasis of developing wargaming within the US defence community. Marcus also noted that there remain weaknesses in game design skills, and a continuing risk that players can leave wargames with incorrect perceptions. He underscored the point, made at the MORS special meeting, that wargame designers and adjudicators must “do no harm.” He also discussed in detail the rapid game design group he helped facilitate at the MORS meeting, which developed Buying Victory, a game of naval capability investment. Overall he noted that there remained considerable mistrust or misunderstanding of how to successfully apply wargaming tools.

Dereck Chong (University of Melbourne) presented on course of action analysis in emergency management planning. Specifically he discussed the development of PHOENIX RapidFire, which enables the production of projections of fire outbreak and spread.

His comments highlighted the difficulty of modeling non-linear processes, especially in a context of uncertain information.

After a coffee break, Marcus returned to talk about defence experimentation and wargaming at DST Group. He started off by NOT defining wargaming—which I was pleased to see, because I think that issue has attracted far too much attention. His section at DST Group (Land Simulation, Experimentation and Wargaming) examines military problems using modeling and gaming techniques that involve an active and intelligent enemy; a model of physical and political environment and systems; quantitative adjudication; and useful analytical outputs. He identified some of the various tools they use, arrayed on a continuum from those optimized for internal validity (clarity of cause and effect) through to those optimized for external validity (relevance and applicability to real world operations). DST Group wargames at various levels:

  • analytical seminar wargaming (problem identification)
  • human in the loop (plan capture)
  • closed loop (statistical analysis)


He then walked the group through the use of a closed loop model using Combat XXI which pitted various configurations of an Australian light armoured vehicle against various configuration of an OPFOR (BTR90, BRDM2, and BMP3). Lance Holden then continued the discussion by discussing some of the challenges of finding, sharing, and exporting adequate data for closed loop simulations.

Subsequent discussion addressed the challenges of modeling human behaviours (morale, leadership, suppression, etc); validation of models; multimethod analysis; and other issues. Marcus noted that they don’t only wargame Blue victories, but also explore the points at which Blue fails. This provides insight into mission-critical capabilities.

Marcus Carter (University of Melbourne) explored how emerging—and increasingly affordable—virtual and augmented reality technologies might affect wargaming. He discussed both the pros and cons of current VR, as well as the promise (and limits) of emerging AR tools. Subsequent discussion points included the role of tangibility and social interaction in gaming and how digital and VR/AR gaming might affect that, as well as the disorientation and nausea effects of VR goggles. Marcus does some really interesting work on games, virtual reality, user interface, and a host of other issues (even the role of mass dice-rolling in Warhammer 40K), and his website (linked above) is well worth a visit.

Justin Dunlop (Ambulance Victoria) offered an overview of Virtual Paramedic, a digital simulation intended to develop emergency management (triage, incident command) skills.

Traditional exercises have limitations: space requirements, resources, and exposure to a limited number of roles. A computer simulation like Virtual Paramedic can be made widely available using existing IT infrastructure, can allow participants to have exposure to all roles, and removes the need for an instructor. Scenarios were designed based on the most commonly-encountered types of incidents, often using historical cases and actual patient data. While all of the AI “bots” in the simulation behave consistently and predictably (in part because the software models best practice), a future version might include some variability for leadership development. He highlighted the importance of an engagement plan to encourage voluntary use of the simulation, as well as the various forms of feedback that are provided to players.

A study comparing Virtual Paramedic and the Emergo Train System (a manual command post exercise) indicated that the former dramatically increased the number of participants and triage training decisions. In the future, using the simulation will be a required part of paramedic training.


Later that same day we had another presentation by Jon Byrne (Ambulance Victoria) on Emergo Train itself. The system uses whiteboards and magnetic markers representing patients, staff, and resources. Patient profiles are based on real cases. Player engagement is high. Since 2005 they have run 78 exercises in Victoria in cooperation with 35 health networks/facilities, and there are now around 50 trained instructors in the state. He made an interesting series of points about “ambos” (paramedics) being trained under normal circumstances to act as independent clinicians, while mass casualty incidents require much greater attention to logistics and command/management.

In the final presentation before lunch Mahesh Prakash (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) discussed the visualization of natural hazard simulations. Among the examples were climate adaptation/flooding risk, fire spread, and uncertainty representation.

Following the lunch break, I delivered an overview of the design and development of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. A copy of my presentation can be found here.

That was followed by Jan McDonald (state Library of Victoria), who offered and overview of their extensive chess (book) collection. The MV Anderson Chess Collection consists of over 13,000 volumes of books, magazines and tournament reports:

Five thousand recent volumes and the latest issues of the world’s major chess magazines are kept in the Library’s Chess Room. There are almost 3000 volumes on openings such as the Sicilian Dragon, King’s Indian, Complete Hedgehog and Hippopotamus. The collection includes books about the history of chess, chess in film and art, and even novels in which chess is a central theme.

intercolonial_chess.jpgA feature of the collection is the many older books on chess; the earliest is a leaf from The game and playe of the chesse, published by Caxton in 1483.

The collection owes its origins to the generosity of MV Anderson, who donated his collection of 6700 volumes between 1959 and 1966. The Library adds several hundred volumes to the collection each year. Others have made generous donations of chess sets.

Roger Lee (Australian Army History Unit) discussed the origins of kriegsspiel, and a contemporary effort to use it to teach about 19th century military operations. Players soon became attached to their military formations, and were frustrated by the (realistic) imperfections of information. There was some frustration at dependence on umpire adjudication (free kriegsspiel). The experiment may not have offered deep insight into 19th century warfare, but offered substantial insight into the challenges of command.

It was agreed that the game was probably too complex to be of use to high school teachers—the intended clients—so instead they tried a game based on the Gallipoli campaign. Each group of players were given a range of possible operational choices: the allies had six invasion choices to select from, while the Turks were given a series of alternative defence deployments. This led to a discussion of the feasibility of each approach. Participants reported that they had learned much about the campaign. Most participants expressed concern, however, that the game was still too complex, and required too much background knowledge by the adjudicators.

Peter Hayes presented on human factors in simulations and training exercises. Such factors underpin the tasks, structures, and systems that we are attempting to simulate; the design of the simulation (including workload, purpose, and fidelity); performance in the simulation;  performance of the facilitators; and use of simulations to learn more about human factors themselves. He concluded by looking at the way simulations had helped to determine crew requirements for the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, and in particular the need for multitasking skills.

Finally, Paul Fitton (International Operations Group) looked at bringing wargaming into the boardroom. He discussed his experience with corporate gaming, in particular crisis management simulations. He noted that in such games, outcomes are often less important than the process of play.

Day 2

Tuesday was taken up with game demonstrations. The DST Group ran some sample course of action wargames, while I facilitated two partial games of AFTERSHOCK. Both teams seemed to get the hang of things quickly, and by the time we had to end the games they were well on their way to success.

After lunch we all came together for a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game. Iraq, supported by its allies, sought to recapture Mosul but found themselves distracted by fighting in Ramadi and elsewhere. Efforts to woo  the Sunni opposition made only limited headway. Finally, when Kurdish and Iraqi troops launched their on the northern city, the Iraqi Army held back until the Kurds were engaged, and then hurriedly retreated when ISIS threatened their lines of communication to Baghdad. The Sunni opposition threw in their weight against the Kurds, who were then slowly thrown back after initial gains—and the game ended pretty much as it had started. The game was followed by some broader discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of matrix gaming.

Final thoughts

While smaller than the US and UK versions of Connections, I was impressed by the diverse presentations and thoughtful and lively discussions in Melbourne. While not everything focused on war gaming—indeed, many of the presentations were actually about emergency management—I found it very useful to see what was being done in parallel areas, and encountered much that could prove useful in my own work. The weather was perfect too!

All-in-all it was well worth attending, and Australian readers should certainly consider attending Connections Australia 2016 when the dates and location are announced.

* * *

Update: The Connections Oz crew have compiled feedback from the conference, and offer some thoughts on Connections Australia 2016. You’ll find it here.

One response to “Connections Australia 2015 AAR

  1. John Curry 20/12/2015 at 1:21 pm

    Thank you for the report, very interesting. Of note is the way that non-wargames are being run to achieve learning objectives by lifting techniques traditionally associated with wargames. Clearly there is some interesting stuff happening in Austria in this area.

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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: