Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Engle: A short history of matrix games

There has been growing interest in matrix gaming in recent years, and it is a topic that we have covered extensively here at PAXsims. A few days ago Bob Cordery also posted a fascinating account of the early development of matrix gaming in the UK at his Wargaming Miscellany blog.

Today we are very pleased to present a piece by the inventor of the matrix gaming approach, himself Chris Engle.


A Short History of Matrix Gaming

Interest is rising in matrix games, and along with it some questions and confusion about the history of the idea. Here is an account of my part in the project. I draw it from my published games and articles, personal journals, and my recollections of anecdotes.

I invented the idea of matrix gaming in January 1988, just after finishing my Masters degree in Social Work. I was visiting a philosophy graduate student friend in Bloomington Indiana. We were discussing the idea of how to roleplay entire countries. He wanted to do it with a set of numbered statistics. I proposed using words. This grew out of my work as a psychotherapist. My practice has always included a strong use of narrative and teaching allegories (especially Sufi teaching stories which eventually lead to my conversion to Islam). My friend thought the idea unworkable so we agreed to work on the problem from our different approaches. Matrix games then grew out of an interesting question. How can you run a game with words rather than numbers?

The answer is two fold. First how to describe the world using words and second how to put that verbal picture into motion. The picture of the world is the matrix of matrix games. I started off using literal matrixes of short phrases that described various institutions and ideas. Together with scenario information (maps, character descriptions, and opening events) each player forms their own mental matrix of the world, a gestalt. The matrix of the world changes by additions to the narrative. Each turn players make arguments about what they want to have happen next.

This was a brand new idea in 1988 but I had the idea that it was good and that if I was willing to do the footwork it could spread. All it required was dedication and a willingness to stick with the message. I set a goal of talking about it and to keep on talking till someone asked me why I was saying the obvious. It took years before that happened.

I wrote the first article on matrix games in 1988. “Verbal analysis wargaming” appeared in Nugget 44 (the newsletter of Wargame Developments). It earned the Editor’s Award for most original game idea of 1988. I set a goal of telling one hundred people about the idea over the next year. I did this by writing more articles and running games at conventions in the Midwest USA. Over the next couple of years I got encouragement from some game community luminaries such as Frank Chadwick, then of Game Designers Workshop. Steve Jackson, of Steve Jackson Games, told me you would need a Masters degree in philosophy to play the game. Which I knew this was wrong because I had already had mentally handicapped people play it.

From 1989 to 1994 I published the Experimental Game Group newsletter. It was mentioned in Simulation and Gaming. I used it to work out rules and test them in yearly play by mail games. Early games included a replay of the events of the fall of Communism in 1989, which predicted the refusal of the Russian army to back the communist party and the secession of Russia from the Soviet Union before they happened. The Peninsular Campaign in 1809, the French Revolution and an Agatha Christie murder mystery followed.

My second goal was to have one hundred people play a matrix game and to tell one thousand people about it over three years. I wrote around sixty articles in gaming magazines like The Midwest Wargamer’s Association Newsletter, Lone Warrior (the journal of the Solo Wargamer’s Association,) PW Review and various Historical Miniature Game Society newsletters on top of publishing EGG. I ran matrix games at Midwestern and Near South gaming conventions including Gen Con and talked about them to anyone who would listen. I viewed gaming as a market of ideas so at some point I needed to produce an actual product. I did this in 1992. “Campaign in a Day” presented game rules, military campaign scenarios, and a miniatures game and was the basis of the game later adopted by the British army in the mid 90’s.

I corresponded widely and Peter Suber of Earlham College recognized matrix games as Nomic games in 1994. Paddy Griffin recognized them as Mugger games.

In England other writers including Bob Cordery and Tim Price started developing their own matrix games in 1990. These are important games but I am not the one to best describe them. After 1994 our two trains of development diverged when I stopped writing articles and began work on developing commercial games.

Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, mentored and encouraged me to learn the business starting in 1995. He later introduced me to someone as “This is Chris Engle. He makes weird games.” I continued to build up my contacts in the game industry and learned about business and the mechanical process of game production. I published Dark Portals my first professional game in 1998. I followed this with a series of role play game like books from 1999 to 2005. After that I put out board game versions between 2006 to 2011 and eventually card games 2012 to 2014. Historically about half of all my players have been women. Unfortunately none of my products were commercial successes. I closed Hamster Press in 2015 and began work on an archive of all my game writings. I’ve got several interesting books from that and am looking for a publisher. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Right now I’m working on a professional matrix game book that spells out an intellectual argument for the game approach and includes chapters on many ways to apply it. One new idea is to do iterative matrix games. I see them as a cheap way to collect a body of mineable data from a potentially large body of players. It can tap the wisdom of crowds in a completely new way. I would like to have a lot of co-authors in this project, pulling on many people’s experiences. Over the years, matrix game have been used by the British and Australian armies for military planning and reorganization, in education to teach history and creative writing, by myself in psychotherapy and by the French army to teach English. I’m aware of academics using it to explore literary criticism and the nature of being European. Some people are beginning to use them in business consulting.

Matrix games started as an idea. With work they grew into articles and published games. Now they are wide spread and looks like they will be useful to a growing body of users. My nearly thirty years of experience boils down to a few simple rules. Start with a problem. Pick a scene and say what happens. Others can add to that or change it. This overwrites what was said before. Anyone can ask you to roll to see if the action doesn’t happen. When the problem is solved the game ends.

Chris Engle 

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