Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections UK 2016 AAR


The main conference component of the 2016 Connections UK professional wargaming conference started on Wednesday, with a record 160 participants registered—the largest Connections UK meeting to date, and the second largest Connections ever.

In the opening session Graham Longley-Brown highlighted the renewed interest in wargaming across the UK military and in the public realm. Among the many things he pointed to were the Sandhurst Kriegsspiel, the various Connections conferences, and the recent publication Zones of Control, edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum. Having done so, however, he raised the question of how best to institutionalize wargaming and build further capacity—the question at the heart of this year’s conference. Phil Sabin echoed these points, welcomed participants on behalf of King’s College London and the Department of War Studies.


The first panel, chaired by ED McGrady (CNA), explored the psychology of successful wargames. Graham Longley-Brown (LBS Consultancy) started off by addressing high-engagement wargames. Wargaming, he argued, was about people, the decisions they take, and the resulting story-living experience. He went on to identify the various components that can contribute to this, including the need to keep players in a game flow that avoids both boredom and excess frustration, and inside the “bubble” of narrative engagement and suspension of disbelief.

Next, Nick Hare (Aleph Insights) offered an excellent presentation on creativity in ludic decision-making. He noted that arriving at a solution involves a mix of both creative and critical (System I and System II) thinking— a cognitive process that we may not be well aware of when it is underway. “Analysis paralysis” tends to occur in the transition between initial assessment and deeper understanding. He noted that much of the literature on analysis focuses on shortcomings in critical thinking (such as failure to fully use information because of cognitive bias) rather than weaknesses in creative thinking (“failures of imagination”). He identified a number of games that encourage creative thinking (Pictionary, Dixit, Codenames, Diplomacy, A Distant Plain, D&D, Megagames). He suggested that (game system) complexity and legibility (maps, clear game concepts, theme) contribute to ludic encouragement of creative thinking.

Finally, the ever-cunning Stephen Downes-Martin (US NWC) talked about wargaming to deceive the sponsor. Wargame sponsors, he argued, often have an interest in deceptive wargames that validate preconceived notions. Wargamers therefore need to learn how to deceive sponsors as a way of inoculating wargaming against sponsor manipulation. This can be done at the game development stage to directly deceive sponsors, or deceiving players during game play in order to deceive the sponsor and other stakeholders. Stress, over-confidence, and career pressures can be exploited to directly manipulate sponsors. Loopholes can be designed into a game that players will exploit in order to generate the desired findings. Having identified how wargames can be deceptive, Stephen then moved on to ways of dealing with all this in order to safeguard game quality: game peer review; monitoring player stress; engaging the sponsor; punishing but learning from cheating; matching game flow to level of war being gamed; identifying and monitoring ambiguous game rules and procedures; and rotating game roles.

I asked about the dangers of too much creative thinking, whereby powerful narrative engagement leads players to forgo critical thinking about real-world feasibility. (This, for example, was a serious problem in my view with the Jane McGonical/World Bank EVOKE social entrepreneurship game.) Nick responded by stressing that the game model needs to root players in the plausible. Graham noted that he more often encounters the challenge of too little engagement rather than too much, but that the game controller should play a role in nudging players back to game objectives. Another questioner asked about the perennial issue of using dice in games, and the discomfort many military participants have with this. All panel members defended the integration of uncertainty through stochastic process. A member of the audience also asked about how one might deal with a situation where a sponsors insists on a scenario that is unwinnable (but isn’t intended to be).

After a coffee break, we were given a brief one minute overview of each of the many games that would be available for play during the later demonstration periods.

After lunch, we returned to discuss non-combat wargames, with the session chaired by Anja van der Hulst. Russell King started us off with an NHS emergency planning exercise. This began with a video announcing a plane crash onto the M-1 near Kegworth, Leicestershire. We were then presented with a series of challenges. Russell used this to discuss the approach he uses, which he sees as facilitated peer review rather than a game with a game control adjudicating outcomes. He noted that it can be hard to get senior people together to participate: they are busy, they are experienced, and they may view a major disaster as a remote possibility compared to day-to-day challenges. However, it is important and necessary that they prepare—indeed, in the UK, this is a professional and legal requirement. If the simulation is snappy, fun, respectful of professional expertise, and tailored to organizational needs it is easier to secure engagement.


Russell King talks us through a brief emergency planning exercise.

Mark Stoop discussed scenario-based policy discussion. Scenarios4Summits designs scenarios for senior (ministerial, head of government) audiences. This presents particular problems: senior leaders and their staff don’t like to be surprised, there are multiple political sensitivities, and the scenario needs to be very up-to-date.

They work with professional actors and high-quality video, using realistic scenarios, detailed scripts, and considerable fact-checking. The scenarios are intended to act as a prompt to discussion. He stressed the importance of audience acceptance.

Michael Lee discussed one approach to wargaming wide area persistent messaging in information operations. They did this by identifying technologies and approaches, grouping them into categories, and then developing comprehensive sets. The cells were given a chance to develop hypothetical capability sets, which were then tested against a scenario. The sets were then refined, and tested against new scenarios. Actual game play involved technology and platform cards: each Blue cell was allowed to select from a pool of these. The local population groups were profiled for literacy, ICT access, population density, and so forth. Set refinement and multiple scenarios encouraged innovative combinations.


WAPM cards on display during the games fair.

Much of the subsequent discussion addressed similarities and differences between the approaches presented by the speakers, as well elements of commonality (or differences) with traditional wargaming. One question regarding summit scenarios involved the tension between making scenarios simple enough for senior leaders yet complex enough for staff with subject matter expertise. Mark noted that while the vignettes were really designed for senior (ministerial) participants, the scenarios nonetheless provided an opportunity for technical staff to more fully inform seniors on the intricacies of the challenge presented. It occurred to me that a related problem might be that of senior participants posturing: that is, behaving in ways intended to impress counterparts, rather than more cynically pursuing national or political interests.

The conference then moved to the first of two “games fair” sessions. In part years I’ve been running games, leaving little chance to see what other games were on display. This time I opted not to sign up for any so that I could tour the demonstrations. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get pictures of them all.


Camberley Kriegsspiel (Andrew Sharpe and Ivor Gardiner)


Dilemma Analysis (Michael Young)


TacCyber Wargame (Roke, photo by Tom Mouat)


Urban Ops (Sebastien de Peyret, photo by Tom Mouat)


Cyber wargame (Andreas Haggman, photo by Tom Mouat)


Bellum Baltica matrix wargame (Johan Elg, photo by Tom Mouat)


Teamwork BG (Swen Stoop)


Wargame 2020 (Jim Wallman)

I’ll admit that I ended up volunteering myself to join Jim Wallman’s Wargame 2020 as part of the Red Team rebels holding Folkestone against a Blue attack. I think we did well in blunting the enemy’s offensive.



Our MRL and artillery batteries, after they flattened Blue’s rear echelon support units and just before they were hammered by Blue counter-battery fire. Clearly the crews should have practised their shoot-and-scoot.

The final plenary session of the day was my own keynote address on Ten (Not Entirely Randomly-Generated) Reflections on the Social Science of Wargaming. I won’t summarize what I had to say, since you can find the slides here, and the video below.


There was a second opportunity to play games after dinner. I ended up running a hastily-organized game of AFTERSHOCK for a couple of officers from UK Standing Joint Force Headquarters and a few conference attendees.

Thursday morning started of with a panel on computer simulation and technology, chaired by Éric Jacobin. Dave Robson and Samantha Black (NSC) presented on technology in support of wargaming, focusing on professional military educational wargaming. Dave argued that technology allows a platform to include communication tools, extensive information, and a common operational picture. Samantha argued that computerized simulations had several strengths, in that they supported rapid calculation (useful for calculation-intensive aspects such as line-of-sight, etc.), avoided emotional bias, facilitated record-keeping and analysis, and are not always expensive. Validation of an educational simulation could be achieved through repeated use, and in many cases simulations only need to be “good enough” since they can be overridden by the White Cell. Digital simulations also can support humans-in-the loop to address aspects that aren’t easily modeled. Simulations are data-driven, which is both a down-side (data preparation) and a strength (supporting multiple use once the data is in place). Mistakes will be made, even by the computer and its model. These can often be treated as “fog of war,” although one can also roll back the simulation or override the digital simulation.

  • Hide the simulation from the users, if possible.
  • Choose an appropriate simulation.
  • Reduce complexity (and be prepared to use subject matter expertise).
  • Emulate the functionality of C3I

Next, Mark Gould (Dstl) discussed CAEn—Close Action Environment, a digital wargame intended primarily for analytical purpose. CAEn allows detailed terrain and unit/platform simulation for platoon and company actions in a simulated area up to 5x5km. He discussed human-in-the-loop digital wargaming, and the issue of corrective human intervention in game outcomes (versus trying to develop sophisticated AI). Analytically, the CAEn team will follow through the critical elements of the wargame, and replicate this with a focus on critical junctures. This allows them to assess how plausible these are. He concluded by identify key strengths of CAEn:

  • Honest (if low-res) graphics.
  • Unique blend of rigour and creativity.
  • Relatively quick or cheap (for what it does).

CAEn in action during the games fair.

He suggested that CAEn should not be used if you are short on time and money, if large scales (terrain and/or forces) are required, or if large amounts of quantitative data is required.


The next plenary session featured Stacie Pettyjohn (RAND) speaking on strategic gaming—why it is languished, and how it can be improved. She started by defining strategic gaming, and contrasting this with operational-tactical gaming. Operational games vary in terms of both structure (low/high) and transparency (low/high). However, strategic games tend to be loosely structured, and most are (low structure/low transparency) seminar games. Indeed, she suggested, most seminar games are BOGSATs in which players “admire the problem” and many players arrive with their own “pet rock” talking points, resulting in few innovative ideas. She suggested that manual boardgames are often more useful (when a problem is well understood), since they provide a structure that focuses player attention. However boardgames do risk being dismissed by some audiences as juvenile. There was also a risk that the game rules might distort or misrepresent key strategic dynamics or interests.

As an example of a strategic boardgame Stacie pointed to the Countering-ISIL game she is developing at RAND, based on ideas that emerged from the rapid game design session at last year’s MORS wargaming meeting. Having cofacilitated that session with Brian Train, Robert Leonhard and others I was particularly happy to see how those initial seeds of idea had developed!


Stacie Pettyjohn discusses strategic wargaming.

The next panel, chaired by Colin Marston (Dstl) looked at successful real-world wargames. Jeff Appleget (NPGS) offered a presentation, coauthored by Rob Burks, on wargaming at the Naval Postgraduate School. He offered several examples: wargaming hybrid warfare in the Arctic (as part of a course on the topic); countering ISIL’s foreign fighter recruitment; exploring the distributed lethality operating concept; defence support to civil authorities (using AFTERSHOCK as part of game design process); wargaming the US Army Pacific CONPLAN (which required considerable security vetting); undersea communication and other technologies; and mass atrocity response. On occasion they’ve done wargames for foreign sponsors, including Norway (hybrid threats) and the Royal Canadian Navy (non-lethal weapons for boarding parties), and also delivered wargaming courses in the US and abroad.

Roger Mason addressed wargaming in the intelligence community. One challenge, he noted, is that once one designs a game it is rarely really clear what is done with it after you hand off the game. National intelligence agencies design their own games, use commercial games, commission games, and monitor other people’s games. Publicly-funded think-tanks (like RAND or CNA) are wargaming too, as are commercial intelligence providers (such as Wikistrat and Stratfor) and academic institutions. Even the Vatican uses scenario planning.

Ivanka Barzaska (KCL) discussed understanding how missile defence affects nuclear deterrence and stability through gaming. She argued that Cold War era modelling of nuclear exchanges are outdated, since contemporary use would like be more limited and constrained. Her research proposes three strategic gaming events, using NATO and (ideally) Russian participants. The games are not intended to test hypotheses, but rather would form part of a mixed-method exploration of highly uncertain issues, acting as a semi-structured interview of sorts. The games could also serve as an informal Track 2 or Track 1.5 process to help educate official about the impact of BMD.

In the subsequent Q&A it was questioned whether wargames were actually having any effect on policy, or whether they had simply become trendy tick-the-box processes.

After lunch, Stephen Downes Martin (NWC) chaired a session on wargaming innovations. Paul Vebber (Naval Undersea Warfare Center) discussed wargaming for innovation. He identified several types of innovation, and emphasized that wargaming ought to form part of the broader cycle of research. Wargaming is particularly useful for issues that involve substantial human decision-making. He spoke of the value of gaming at the various stages of addressing a problem: problem framing, problem exploration, solution framing, synthesis (and game design), solution exploration (playing the game).

Ellie Bartels (RAND) then explored resolving hidden information in open adjudication. Specifically she argued that open adjudication can be a key way of gaming emerging issues (especially when Control doesn’t know more about the issue than the players). However, many emerging issues (deterrence, hybrid warfare, cyber, terrorism, etc.) involve hidden information. Games may hide motivations, actions, capabilities, or effects. Masking actions, capabilities, and effects is more challenging than masking motives. She went on describe how to capture fog of war effects with limited map visibility, separate maps,  or flipped counters, as well as the use of cards to keep information private. She also addressed alternative models for hidden information such as face validity (whereby players challenge processes when results seem implausible) and zero-knowledge protocols (where results are validated by repeated partial observation). There were a couple of interesting suggestions from the audience on additional approaches during the Q&A.


Ellie addresses the challenge of hidden information in open adjudication games.

Laura Hoffman (KCL) offered her perspective, as a former student, on wargaming at KCL. She was very enthusiastic about Phil Sabin’s conflict simulation course (and indeed disagreed with some of the cautionary notes I had sounded during my keynote address), although initially she felt out of her depth. She noted that she playtested and revised the game so many times that her friends grew sick of it, and was forced to play with family members over Skype. Laura found game design changed her perspective, offered an opportunity for a deep dive into her topic (the war in Darfur), and was a different learning approach. Subsequently she served as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course, which provided a further opportunity to understand the educational value of gaming. She argued that megagaming and other wargaming was a better learning experience than model United Nations, and that there is genuine student interest in conflict simulation. One interesting question from the audience raised the potential difficulty of grading a game design.

The last part of the conference was taken up breakout sessions devoted to the challenge of how might we institutionalize wargaming and build wargaming capacity? Different working groups addressed this in the context of particular groups and audiences:

  • frontline (military, emergency service) personnel
  • defence science and technology
  • military education and training
  • historical analysis/conflict analysis
  • academia
  • industry
  • hobby gamers

I co-facilitated the academic breakout group with Phil Sabin (KCL). Much of the discussion focused on the need to establish professional respect and validation for educational wargaming. I was struck how the challenges differed across disciplines and university settings. In my own field of political science, there is widespread support for games-based learning, and games-based analysis wouldn’t be difficult sell either. Conversely, Phil has often commented on the resistance he sometimes encounters from fellow military historians. In civilian university, especially in North America, instructors have considerable latitude as to what and how they teach. In the military, however, there are often hierarchies and institutional requirements that deter or inhibit pedagogical innovation. We also addressed labelling (“wargaming” vs “conflict simulation”), student interest, whether there ought to be an academic wargaming journal (I’m dubious), and how best to support the sharing of ideas and experiences (in part, to encourage others  who might be interested in gaming but reluctant to try it to “come out of the closet”). There might also be scope for using new technology—for example, YouTube videos—to provide lessons in game design and facilitation.

The hobby game group noted that they were an “expendable and deniable” resource for more serious gaming, able to bring historical knowledge, a different subculture, and extyensive experience in game design and mechanics. Their contributions might include support to Red and Blue (and other teams), playtesting, and facilitation expertise.

The industry group addressed both the industry as a resource and gaming within the business sector. They noted the importance of having access to senior people. The concept of red teaming sometimes provides a hook which can lead on to wargaming. They also noted that interest among individuals doesn’t necessarily translate into continuing  institutional support.

The historical analysis group identified a lack of resources (time, money, people) as the major obstacle to institutionalizing wargaming and creating a safe space for experimentation. There was a general feeling that new officers were not necessarily well-prepared for the uncertainties of future war, and that getting at officers early in their careers and exposing them to quick (possibly recent-historical) wargames could be very useful. Those with experience in recent campaigns could be a valuable resource for this. There was also a need for outreach to, and sharing with, the broader wargame community.

The professional military education group also stressed the need for accessible games, and the value of having games recommended on military reading lists. There needed to be more outreach and publication in appropriate venues, and more collection of evidence as to the effectiveness of wargaming as a teaching and learning technique. Student feedback is essential.

The defence science and technology group raised the need for more cumulated knowledge, and the value of better understanding client needs. They pointed to a degree of disconnect between wargamers and technology. There was interest in, but debate about, an accredited professional society. Publication in peer-reviewed journal was also seen as valuable.

Finally, the “front-line” military and civil group  reported. They noted that wargames were occurring at various points in the planning cycle: risk assessment, planning, training, and exercise/response/capacity development. Wargaming is a planning tool that offers insight into how groups of people will respond to a challenge. Ivor Gardiner enthusiastically emphasized the value of wargaming as a cheap, highly effective training method that saves lives.

Phil Pournelle made some overall comments. He identified one key cross-cutting theme was that of credibility: of the method, with superiors, and among participants. He also emphasized the importance of games being somewhere where it was “safe to fail,” and he also emphasized the importance of “catching them young.” Phil noted the vast reservoir of knowledge in the hobby and industry. He challenged the wargaming community to better understand the analytical needs of the US DoD, UK MoD, and other clients, and thereby be better able to make the case for wargaming. Matt Caffrey offered three more observations: first, the professional wargaming community does want the support of hobby gamers and industry; second, that we needed to document and archive wargaming more carefully, lest it be lost to history; and finally that no matter what wargamers do, young men and women will die—but if we wargame well, perhaps fewer lives will be lost and fewer resources spent.

In summing up the conference, Phil Sabin said he thought it was the best yet. I have to agree. The presentations and discussions were excellent, the atmosphere was enjoyable and productive, and the networking opportunities were outstanding.

Slides and recordings will be have now been posted soon to the Connections UK website. You’ll also find an account of the conference at Bob Cordery’s blog, Wargaming Miscellany.


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