On 17-20 October 2016 the Military Operations Research Society held a special meeting on wargaming. PAXsims’ very own Tom Mouat was there both to help facilitate the event and to bring us the report below.
Additional details from regular PAXsims reader Paul Vebber follow after Tom’s report.
I was privileged to be invited, along with colleagues from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), to the MORS Wargaming Special Meeting on 17 to 21 October 2016 in Alexandria, VA. Rex couldn’t make it, so again I was deputised to provide PAXSims readers with a report.
It was clear in the lead-up to the event that this was to be a more in-depth look at a few things, rather than the usual conference offering of a shallow look at a large number of things. This was unusual and I’m not entirely sure that it provided the best fit for the stated aims for the workshop:
- How best incorporate rigorous and well-designed wargaming into the department’s larger analytical and acquisition focus.
- As the demand for wargaming continues to grow we need to increase the pool of wargamers and wargame designers to meet those needs now and into the future.
If you were a beginner, unsure as to the role and range of wargame tools and techniques, you might have got lucky in choosing the workshop sessions that met your requirements; but if you weren’t it is perfectly possible you would get stuck in a session unsuitable for your needs. This wasn’t helped by the descriptions issued prior to the event being a little less than clear and a number of session being classified and NOFORN (no foreigners). This was exacerbated when there were a number of last minute changes to programme aims, the sessions and their classification.
I had originally intended to look at a number of the sessions and provide assistance to the “Project Cassandra, Envisioning Possible Futures” session. However one of the wargaming sessions (when I say “sessions” it was actually four half-day sessions spread over three days) had the organisation running it (US Army Training and Doctrine Command/TRADOC pull out. I was invited to stand in and run the session on matrix gaming instead—which I was delighted to do.
Travel and subsistence budgets being what they are, the cheapest flights from the UK are on a Saturday, giving us the bonus of recovering from jetlag as well as the opportunity to do some additional professional development in visiting the battlefield of Gettysburg. This is a quite outstanding battlefield, well preserved and with an excellent visitor centre. There are a large number of different lessons that can be gained from looking at details of the large battle, over the two days of the fighting. The Dstl staff, led by their own historian, took advantage of this. Sadly I was unable to participate as I was doing last minute preparation for the sessions.
The hotel recommended for the event was excellent and ideally placed for the subsequent events which were held in the hotel and at the nearby Institute for Defence Analysis (IDA).
Monday, 17 October 2016
The first day included a course, “Wargaming Introduction and Theory,” run by Dr Peter Perla and Dr Ed McGrady, which lasted all day. In addition, a shorter course, “Executive Overview of Military Wargaming,” was run by Mike Garrambone. I attended the first of these because the UK Defence Academy is intending to run its own “Introduction to Wargaming” course, and watching how two of the foremost experts in the field do it was likely to be extremely educational.
Peter Perla started and covered wargaming history, from the earliest games and models used for training and education, through to the birth of modern wargaming. This included Kriegsspiel, Johann Hellwig’s wargame, the introduction of geomorphic maps, real topographic mapping and the use of experienced umpires in order to reduce complexity and include military common sense. He also covered the rise of the hobby game, sparked off by H G Wells’ Little Wars; the crossover from RAND’s use of hexagons to regularise movement; and the game company Avalon Hill and its success in publishing games for the hobby market.
Peter Perla reviews the evolution of wargaming.
The course went on to cover the rise of wargaming as a fundamental part of the analytical process in the inter-war years, particularly in the US Navy War College. This is probably one of the most innovative periods of concept and doctrine development which helped shape the conflict to come, not just in the USA but also among the German General Staff.
I noted that from this period that there were two observations that emerged from these wargames:
- Some people are dicks.
- Innovation takes time.
Some of the participants in the wargaming process are unable to see the value of exploring a situation or problem through a game, fail to take it seriously and behave inappropriately. This is not helpful, but wargame facilitators need to be aware of this, and develop mitigating strategies to deal with it or valuable opportunities will be lost. (I would also offer that this phenomenon is not limited to manual wargaming – computer simulation is also afflicted with personnel who seem unable to grasp what the process is trying to achieve and are negative or disruptive, however well run the game.)
Innovation is not a simple process with a short timescale. It takes time to breed the open minded and intelligent organisational culture where ideas are valued from wherever they arise and where change is embraced. It is only from this basis that sustained advances can be generated and genuine advantage realised.
We then moved on to Dr Ed McGrady who covered the theory of games, how they work, what approaches work best and the human response to games. He started with a warning that, while efforts are improving, there is still no proper epistemology of wargaming and no coherent theoretical treatment—especially of manual games although there is a reasonable amount of work dealing with computer games.
Diversity in this area is a challenge and there is no simple one definition to cover all wargames.
He went on to cover the elements that make up a game, wargames vs peace games, what is not a wargame and some of the foundations of the concept of “play.” In many professional and analytical games the designers seem to want to eliminate the “play” aspects of the wargame. This is wrong, fails to get buy-in to the process, followed by a lack of understanding of the problem space and ultimately results in a bad game.He covered the elements of play, the role of making them enjoyable in a defence analytical context, their internal structure and most importantly the psychological and neurological concept of narrative (leading to engagement, and the “entre deux”, the in-between space where disbelief is suspended and insights are gained).
This included the significant observation: Lunch is important! If you are going to the time and effort in order to involve the participants in a game, where future possibilities are envisaged, disbelief suspended, and the players fully engaged, it is foolhardy to jeopardise the event by refusing to provide lunch—forcing participants to disperse, lose the game immersion and focus, and ultimately much of the value of the process.
I have made many pages of notes, including the dramaturgical aspects of games, the concept of “flow”, games vs simulations, hard vs soft assumptions, the big questions about the effect games have, sociological work, and theoretical principles. Indeed, it was all much too much to be able to present a coherent commentary here without significant additional thought and the risk of boring you!
Which brings me to a concern. This was not really an introduction to wargaming. Instead, it was a masterclass in the theoretical underpinnings of the art, that included some really deep stuff. I found the day incredibly useful (and I am anxiously awaiting copies of the slides because I’m afraid that my hurried notes may well have missed something), but I am also a wargaming practitioner of many years, including running and designing games used by defence as well as the wider community. I suspect that a novice, seeking an initial understanding, might well become lost and confused…
…until they decided to demonstrate what they meant, by the use of the matrix game “Lasgah Pol” dealing with peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan (available as part of Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming). Since I designed the game , and was asked to demonstrate an example move, they are obviously geniuses!.
Tuesday, 18 October 2016
This was the start of the special event proper, and followed the more usual format of a plenary keynote and panel sessions until shortly after lunch.
Following introductions and the US national anthem, we started with a keynote from Andrew Marshall, former advisor to the Secretary of Defence for Net Assessment. At first glance it looked like the organisers were rolling out someone from an earlier era, but he quickly contradicted that impression, demonstrating sharp and timely insight. He gave a brief history of the Office of Net Assessment and pointed out that reading long papers on a subject can take time and are likely to only explore the subject from a single point of view. Games, in contrast, were very quick at distilling issues to their essential fundamentals, but he also underlined the importance of a proper opposition (the Red players).
An example he gave was dealing with the Strategic Bomber programme. This was during the Cold War—strategic bombers were expensive compared to ballistic missiles, and there were calls to make cuts in the bomber fleet. Looking at the problems through a series of wargames demonstrated that the bomber fleet forced the enemy to invest in large quantities of air defence weapons. Since the enemy was resource limited, this was advantageous to the US. On the other hand, cutting the bomber fleet would permit an enemy to switch in investment from weapon systems that were essentially of limited use, to areas that would present more of a threat. This lead to the conclusion that when thinking about a subject it is often essential to look widely at the problem to ensure a holistic solution
Marshall also pointed out, from his vast experience, that if you want innovation you should select the best players and if you want good games you should use the best facilitators. Choose the best for the most important problems.
This was followed by the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG) Quad Chair panel. This covered the initiative resulting from DEPSECDEF Robert Work’s February 2015 memo to institute a repository for wargames and their reports. It currently includes some 550 high level games on a wide range of topics, as well as including funding for additional games and wargaming projects (including funding the US DOD and foreign government attendance at the MORS event). They issue a monthly report including a listing of upcoming games, highlighting previous games that are in the depository, the usual statistics about the depository, and other areas about DOD wargaming.
I was initially very cynical about the value of such a depository, but it appears to have access at the highest levels and is being managed effectively. I was particularly impressed by the definite focus on innovation, increasing the decision space for the leadership, and the particular emphasis on “so what?”—that is, proper explanation of the value of the work done and links to real change. Of course, the repository is a US-only classified capability, but it certainly sounds useful. I’m now jealous!
The panel also covered the intriguing idea of using wargames to educate members of Congress. This was, of course, difficult, and would probably have to focus on their direct staff, but it still looks like a really good idea. They also mentioned the lack of value gained from games that generated obvious conclusions: “Don’t tell me we have a lack of a particular resource —we already know that. Tell me what you did to compensate for it and did it work!” which is, of course, intrinsically more useful.
The Services Panel followed, with a number of useful observations:
- An understanding that putting on more, smaller sized, games helps frame specific problems.
- Wargames and quantitative analysis are not enemies – they are complimentary, depending on each other.
- There needs to be robust cost modelling in games – stop inventing stuff with ridiculously cheap costs.
- Wargames help frame a problem properly for greater understanding (a recurring theme across the ages).
- Wargaming as a discipline encourages plagiarism – get the best ideas to work for you from anywhere.
I was interested to see the Department of Homeland Security present, happy to learn from the mistakes of others and present with a sense of humour. They hope to avoid the OODA loop problem where it ends up as “Observe, Overreact, Destroy, Apologize,” instead of what it is meant to be.
The Combatant Commands were next and I was impressed at the real efforts to reinvigorate wargaming after decades of decline. It was acknowledged that the efforts were a little patchy in places, but equally there seemed to be a real appreciation of the value to be gained.
This was followed by the Allies panel, with contributions from the UK, Holland, Sweden and Canada. These showed that wargaming efforts were in place in each nation, even if at a vastly different level of effort to the USA. The UK chose to highlight the essential work of Dstl and the Connections UK conference, and Canada mentioned publishing a wargaming doctrine publication, something the UK are also working on.
Lastly we had a panel on Red Teaming from specialists in that discipline. They were initially surprised to be invited and explained the aim of Red Teaming is to get “better decisions and better plans”, through knowing oneself, mitigating group think, fostering empathy and through applied critical thinking.
Working Groups, Courses and Wargames
At this point we broke up into smaller groups to spend the rest of Tuesday, all day Wednesday and Thursday morning in our respective session. Because of this I lost sight of what else was going on, although Paul Vebber provides some additional insight at the end of this report.
The sessions were:
- Working Group 1: Analytic Process with Paul Davis and Matt Caffrey. Classified. NOFORN.
- Working Group 2: Communication and Implementation, with Paul Vebber.
- Working Group 3: Adjudication, with Tim Wilkie.
- Course 2: Red Teaming, with Steven Rotkoff.
- Course 3: Structured Analytic Techniques, with Joseph Cyrulik.
- Wargame 1: Project Cassandra – Envisioning Possible Futures, with Yuna Wong.
- Wargame 2: Phase Zero Baltic Operations with Scott Simpkins. Not Classified, but NOFORN.
- Wargame 3. Matrix Gaming, with Tom Mouat.
- Synthesis Group: This was an oversight group with Peter Perla looking for common themes and best practices.
Since I had 4 sessions of about 4 hours each, and one of the benefits of matrix gaming is that games are quick to design and play, we did a different game in each session.
Matrix game materials ready for play.
We started the game with a presentation on matrix wargames looking at different approaches and the value of roleplay in predicting the outcome of conflict. This was followed with “Kazhdyy Gorod” a game about a city in a former Soviet state on the border with Russia.
The game started extremely well, with everything looking on track to being sorted out with the minimum of trouble or bloodshed. Well, that was until the Chief of Police acted against orders from the Mayor, who promptly assassinated her in a scene of the finest “Godfather” tradition in front of the rest of the city council. Chaos ensued (not least for the facilitator) but soon resolved itself with the Rebels kidnapping and murdering the Mayor, the Militia Commander sitting neatly on the fence and the Protest Leader ably supported by the power of international media (in the shape of the Press player) being elected the new Mayor of the city.
I was quite shocked and wondered if anyone was going to turn up for the following session after the adjudication difficulties, but with hindsight it was a good stress test of the system and showed the participants that the game can cope with wild play.
Wednesday, 19 September 2016
The following morning began with a short presentation on my guidance tips for facilitating Matrix Games, followed by the Cyber game “All Your Secrets Are Belong To Us“, a game about stealing the next generation stealth fighter plans.
This game went extremely well with very good participation all around and it was quite rewarding to see that the flow of the narrative was appreciated by the players. This meant the consequential requirement of detailed formal adjudication was much reduced, now that the players were more familiar with the game and gameplay.
That afternoon, after another short presentation, this time on some facilitator techniques that could be helpful for facilitators, we decided to design and run a complete matrix game on a subject chosen by the participants within the time available.
The subject chosen was the current crisis in the Baltic States, especially as we had a Swedish and Dutch participant in the group. The game was entitled “Baltic Challenge” and the game design followed the following steps:
- Define the game scope: modelling the current crisis in the Baltic States.
- Define the “Actors” involved in the crisis and the order of play.
- Define the Objectives for the Actors (simple bullet point objectives).
- Design possible “triggers” as pre-conditions to possibly upset the current equilibrium.
- Generate a suitable visualisation (map) for the area.
- Allocate markers representing effects in the game (DIME/PMESII/FRIS).
We had a long discussion about who to represent as players (required to influence the game) as opposed to being mainly there to be influenced by others. In the end, we chose the following “Actors”:
- Russian separatists in the Baltic States.
- The Baltic State Governments as a single actor:
- Poland as a separate actor.
- The USA as a separate actor.
- The Nordic States as a single actor:
We generated the objectives for each party quickly and then commenced play. A number of possible “triggers” were also discussed:
- Iskander deployment to Kaliningrad.
- Russian troop movements on the border.
- An economic report demonstrating ethnic disadvantages for Russian speakers in the Baltic States.
- Airspace violations.
- Soviet fleet manoeuvres in the Baltic.
- Soviet ship breakdown on the way to Kaliningrad (assumed Iskander missiles and S-400 air defences on board).
The preferred option was a mix of an economic report indicating Russian speakers have a justified grievance and the Soviet resupply ship breaking down off Tallinn on the Estonian coast.
A later version of the “Baltic Challenge” map.
The game worked very well, highlighting a large number of points to the participants that they were unaware of. The chief insights from the game were that the Baltic States may well try to “do the right thing” for the Russian speaking minority, but they were largely pawns in the game between Russia and the West. There were a number of treaties that affected the participants (the 1997 Founding Act, EU sanctions against Russia, and NATO relations with Sweden) that were important and needed to be understood. The fact that Poland has a right-wing government keen to demonstrate that it will not be bullied by Russia might not necessarily be a good thing as NATO depended on Poland to play a key role in the area and felt limited in the sort of pressure it could bring to bear.
It was also noted that the Inkander missiles, with a range of 500km, may violate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty (missiles with a range of 500-5,500km) and there was speculation as to why the USA or NATO governments have not challenged Russia about them. The following morning, this was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article, neatly showing the game was on the right track highlighting this issue.
Gaming the headlines!
We felt that the game would have benefitted (as would any game) from a specialist subject matter expert in the region to assist the facilitator with the briefings, objectives, consequence management, and adjudication but nevertheless we felt that three hours of work had demonstrated the value of the game and wider regional understanding.
The game is now available via a link at PAXsims.
Thursday, 20 September 2016
On the final day, we elected to have a game run by the participants as, given the level of experience they had achieved with the game process and mechanics, they should be able to run and facilitate their own game. The game chosen was “ISIS Crisis“, with updated briefing and dispositions to reflect the current situation.
The pre-game discussion indicated a strong feeling that if the game was to be wider than just Iraq, it needed the involvement of Turkish and Russian actors, even at risk of slowing down play, so these roles were included.
The game ran well, even if the most up to date developments were not reflected in the initial set up. The inclusion of Russian and Turkish actors, did change the balance of the game and showed just how far things had changed in the years since the game was designed. It was felt that it would benefit from updated quality briefings for these actors to match the other briefings.
Closing Plenary Sessions
Finally, there was a closing session in which back brief were given on the different workshops, courses and wargames as well as a keynote by DEPSECDEF Robert Work.
The Deputy Secretary of Defence commenced his remarks with the inevitable senior officer’s joke and seemed, at least initially, to be a straightforward explanation of what he was trying to achieve. After a few minutes though, when he had warmed to his subject, the presentation was transformed into an inspiring call to arms that was quite different to the usual rhetoric. Having your DEPSECDEF being quite so disarmingly clear that he wakes up every day thinking of ways that he can mess up the plans of potential adversaries was a breath of fresh air from someone who clearly knows his stuff. He gets my vote and I’m not even an American.
The final thing that stuck in my mind was the realisation that we are facing a new “inter-war period” with all the implications that this brings, and that we need to develop new ways and means to give decision makers strategic choices for the future.
I am looking forward to seeing the presentations being posted on the MORS website so that I can have an understanding of what went on in the other sessions.
Friday, 21 September 2016
The following day the UK delegation (Dstl and I) visited the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at John Hopkins University in order to take a look at the work of APL and the Collaborative Analysis Centre. This was an utterly inspiring visit, generating a raft of ideas and possibilities.
Visiting JHU APL.
The MORS event continued with additional sessions about Research Design by Dr John Compton, but sadly we were unable to attend those.
Despite the minor administration problems, mainly affecting us foreigners, the trip was extremely worthwhile. Being able to practice my craft with experienced and knowledgeable participants at this level was very valuable for my personal development and a significant contribution to the UK Defence Academy plans for the future.
I got a shiny MORS challenge coin too!
I still have reservations as to the value for an inexperienced beginner in this subject area, given the level at which many of the instructional participants were operating. This needs to be addressed if we are to generate replacements for the increasingly old expertise we have in the field (myself included).
Additional Details from Paul Vebber:
I was a co-chair for a working group looking at the issues of “Communication and Implementation” and the relationship of those issues with technology. First, what information needs to move within the “game world” and between the players? Second, what information needs to move between the game world and players and the adjudicators? Third, what what information needs to move out of the “game world” to the observers and analysts?
Ed McGrady and I sliced the group of about 30 we had into subgroups a couple different ways, and discussed these issues in the context of the sort of problems they typically used wargaming techniques to explore. We then focused on two different types of games—Ed the more POL-MIL type, and I a more high tactical/ low operational—and walked through a game design exercise considering where it made sense to use technologies of different levels of sophistication in this communication focused design approach.
Interestingly the team looking at the more qualitative POL-MIL type of game went “high order” on technology to address the “inside the game world” communication issues linking large numbers of players dealing with a high degree of “interactional complexity”.
The group dealing with a more operational problem (exploring the decision space associated with maintaining a long term—many weeks to a few months—naval presence in a location where an ambiguous adversary occasionally lobs missiles at you, or potentially threatens you by other means, AND you have to deal with other emergent operational requirements nearby) started with a “low tech” representation that developed into a card-driven board game.
Despite initial thoughts that some fairly sophisticated M&S tools may be required, it turned out the tech requirements were more about communicating between the game world of manual game play and observer/analysts to capture situational information about why decisions were made and the risk calculus was assessed. The “high fidelity M&S” tools were then used in analysis efforts fed by information from the game and did not have to integrated into the gameplay directly.
This provided a simpler, quicker playing game which feeds M&S efforts focused on digging into the “structural complexity” of weapon system interaction in a well understood operational context that is emergent from and traceable to player decision making.
There were two other working groups, three opportunities to play in different types of games, and five different classes. Check the MORS website for more info on those events—I’m not sure how much of the material and outbriefs will be made available, my understanding is at least some of it will be.