By Major Tom Mouat (UK Army). All views expressed herein are personal ones.
This year saw a welcome return of the Connections wargaming conference to the US Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia. The event took place in the General Alfred M. Gray Marine Corps Research Center Conference Wing—really excellent facilities, and great on-base administration. The Connections website can be found here, and the 2017 programme is here.
Sadly, the restrictions and increased security, while less onerous than attempting to get to Maxwell Airforce Base last year, were still a significant hurdle preventing at least two European delegates from attending. Fortunately for me, the excellent support from the British Embassy and the admin staff at my home base meant the necessary paperwork was completed in time. I was also slightly alarmed to find that my NATO travel order was not sufficient alone to get me through US Customs any more, but I had to have a valid passport as well (last year I travelled without my passport because I packed my wife’s passport by mistake). Good to know in future.
I elected to travel over the weekend in order to make use of budget air fares and to recover a little from jetlag – but also to visit the simply excellent National Museum of the Marine Corps nearby. This is an extremely good museum, with free entry and is expanding every year.
This year’s theme at Connections was advancing wargaming and analysis as distinct yet complimentary tools.
Following the usual admin and safety stuff, this started with a Wargaming 101 from Matt Caffrey. Every time Matt gives his “Wargaming 101” brief it is new and different, tailored to the conference theme and full of useful information, along with some of the old faithful points that are well worth repeating (such as: “Wargaming as a way of training allows people to practice their decision-making in a safe-to-fail environment, creating “Virtual Veterans” in their profession”).
This year took a slightly more focussed look at the analysis elements, covering Defence Secretary Robert McNamara’s drive for a “bigger bang for our buck”, General Wallace in Iraq and even President Ronald Regan’s admission that he found wargaming “useful”. He also mentioned an excellent quote that I shall steal and re-use: “Wargaming is like a powerful drug; used wisely it can do great good, but it can also do great harm”. He stressed the importance of using wargaming to communicate and clarify input on alternative resource allocations as well as a powerful tool for organisational development.
One of the most useful explanations for me, as a foreigner, was his simple explanation of the US Defence Planning Systems wargames. This helped clarify slides which I had seen in the past, but were simply covered with meaningless three and four-letter acronyms (JOPES? PPBS? JSPS?).
He also covered the wargaming cycle, but this time with an emphasis on the need for evidence and understanding of concepts with which to inform investment decisions for future investment. Finally, he covered the area of “confidence in wargames” and prediction. Wargames are seldom spot-on in their predictions, but if the wargame was properly designed they are mostly close enough to have practical utility– but badly designed games (such as where the sponsor has insisted they want a “wargame to prove I need more of a specific thing”); can generate wrong or misleading results. The principal elements that affect confidence in the outcomes are those games are dealing with “wicked problems”, as well as in the quality of planning leading up to a game and execution of the game itself.
“Effective use of games can help us make more effective decisions, secure funds and better prepare today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.” Matt Caffrey 2017.
This was followed by two seminar sessions on one of three topics:
- Wargaming in Professional Military Education Roundtable.
- The Marine Corps Gazette Tactical Decision Games.
- Confrontation Analysis.
Sadly, I was unable to attend the roundtable session as I was really interested in the other two sessions. The Marine Corps Tactical Decision Games have always fascinated me. I am also interested in the relatively new field of Confrontation Analysis, as I have attended a couple of games using this method.
Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) are tactical scenarios presented in text format with a map, presenting some background and a tactical dilemma/predicament. They are intended to allow users to practice decision-making and explore tactical principles. They were first included in Lt Col John F Schmidt’s “Enemy over the Bridge” scenario in the Marine Corps Gazette (April 1990), and have been included to a greater or lesser degree ever since.
The archive of TDGs are here, but you need to be a member of the Marine Corps Association and Foundation ($35 pa) to read some of the older editions.
Colonel Chris Woodbridge (Ret), the current editor of the Gazette, explained that the TDG was in essence a “single turn wargame”. The intention of including these games in the Marine Corps Gazette was to cover a number of things:
- What does “manoeuvre warfare” look like on the ground?
- How do we teach it in a practical manner?
- Cognitive skills.
- Promote discussion of warfighting experience.
- Practice decision-making under time pressure.
They work best under time constraints and in front of peers (with the worry about public embarrassment providing a real incentive). They also work best in force-on force scenarios rather than in the qualitative nuances of “people’s war”. He also mentioned a book (including many of the solutions to the problems) called Mastering Tactics published in 1994. There was a lot of interest in a book of these problems from those present, rather than using the website, and it is possible that additional volumes could be produced in the future. Additional plans include improving the user interface for those wishing to submit solutions (currently it has a PowerPoint file with tactical graphics in it as well as a “guidebook” with a summary of Battalion weapons, ORBAT and map graphics).
Some of these TDGs are a little difficult for the non-Marine to understand with their abbreviations and non-NATO symbology, but several of my friends have found it useful to have a selected few examples in their pockets for down-time on the range or while stuck in inevitable transport delays. They get people thinking, especially because they are deliberately dilemmas, rather than leading to an obvious solution, and so provoke debate.
Confrontation Analysis is an operational analysis technique used to structure, understand and think through multi-party interactions such as negotiations. It is the underpinning mathematical basis of drama theory.
As John Curry, editor of the History of Wargaming Project, explained the essence of the game is to identify dilemmas between the various actors in a confrontation and then propose alternative options to help explore ways to mitigate these dilemmas. The game evolves over time in a structured way with these additional options and stated positions of the parties.
There is a lot of material available on confrontation analysis, as a simple Google search will reveal – much of it dense and hideously complex. This Wikipedia article provides an overview.
The UK DSTL analyst, Mike Young, has been a leading proponent of confrontation analysis and has recently published The Confrontation Analysis Handbook: How to Resolve Confrontations by Eliminating Dilemmas. There is also a written submission to the UK Defence Committee available on “How to Understand, Plan, and Forecast Future Politics: Evidence to Support the use of Role Playing Workshops using Confrontation Analysis.”
I have found that while this is a very useful technique, it has considerable cognitive barriers to initial understanding as part of a wargame. This hurdle was a real problem in the few games I was part of several years ago, and probably contributed to its remaining below the radar since then. This was swiftly identified by the audience and it was freely admitted by John that further work was needed in this area. The book publication is an attempt to make the game technique more accessible and the spreadsheet tool used is available for free download with it.
I don’t think John managed to make the explanation of the technique “clear and simple”, but he certainly managed to draw attention to what is potentially another tool in the Pol/Mil strategy toolkit. Personally, I feel that if you thought that matrix games need an experienced facilitator, confrontation analysis will probably need a real expert…
Following lunch, we travelled over to the Breckinridge Hall for some wargame demonstrations, poster sessions and facilitated events (although the only poster was one for the Matrix Game Construction Kit.
I decided this year to take a different game design with me (as a change from taking a matrix game). The game was Bomber!, an educational game designed to promote discussion about military bombing, asymmetric warfare, political ideals, deception and ethical/humanitarian behaviour.
The game was specifically designed for education and to promote discussion in the classroom and, while it was intended for use in the UK MOD Air Warfare Centre, it has had the most use at the Westminster University, Politics Department in central London.
The game ran very well with most of the discussion points coming out easily (and with such an audience I would expect that). The asymmetrical nature of the game was appreciated, although the “Advanced Western Side” caught on quickly about what was happening and managed to secure a rare victory in what was a deliberately imbalanced scenario.
The experience participants also came up with really useful additions to the game, which I have incorporated.
All the material for the game is available here.
There was a wide variety of games going on and nice to see Victory Games putting on a stand (and having a game about my favourite episode in history – the exploits of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the “Lion of Africa”, in German East Africa).
Of particular interest to me was a game put on by Maj Abe Goepfert from the US Army College Strategic Simulations Division, at Carlisle Barracks. This was a matrix game about the South China Sea. What was especially fascinating was that it had been developed quite independently from the game of the area that I had designed (the Nine Dash Line), and had removed much of the unnecessary additional features that I felt had marred an earlier game designed by the Army War College on the Baltic least year. The game was almost identical to my design (save for having a role for Indonesia, rather than Taiwan) despite being developed independently, which said to me that the matrix game system has matured to a point where it can be run without specialist prior experience. It was also successfully run with over 300 players in 23 simultaneous games!
My demonstration was over quite quickly and I was able to sit down with personnel from the National Guard Bureau, Joint Training and Exercise Division. This is an example of where attendance at conferences like Connections can be so valuable. They grilled me for well over an hour about my experiences of running and designing Matrix Games and I hope I was able to let them have some free “consultancy” about the subject (this being 50% of my role in the UK). I also got the chance to sketch out a design for Earthquake! A natural disaster matrix game that I hope to be able to share on PAXsims at a later date.
Day 2 kicked off with a short presentation by Bill Lademan about the future plans for the MSMC Wargaming Division. He was concerned about the apparent divide between OA and Wargaming (hence this year’s theme) and wanted to outline plans for the new Wargaming Centre and the home of the Marine Corps. This was to be a $150-170M investment, but there was some considerable work to be done in planning to ensure that they get exactly what they want.
The purpose of the Wargaming Centre is to:
- Carry out wargaming at Secret and above.
- Inform budget decisions.
- Ensure interoperability.
- Help with the demand signal for wargaming.
- Help the next generation of innovation.
The development certainly looks exciting and I was particularly interested in an effort to add support tools for what is essentially a manual process. There would be electronic and computerised support – but the wargames themselves would be very much human-centred and involve open “white box” processes. This was levied with a concern about technology overload and they plan a 3-year series of experiments before they actually start building anything.
Keynote Address – Peter Perla
This keynote was billed as Peter’s retirement address as, while he still wishes to remain engaged with wargaming, Peter is finally retiring (again) from his day job. Before Peter was allowed to step up to the podium, however, he was presented with a “Lifetime Achievement Award”, which turned out to be a banana (with much mirth and hilarity) since the trophy had yet to arrive. (The banana was replaced later in the conference with the formal trophy, a large chess piece – a Knight – mounted on a plinth). This was closely followed be a surprise video message from the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John M Richardson, thanking Peter for his service and contribution.
Peter’s address covered a wide range of topics taking as its theme a conversation with John Curry about “magic predictive wargames” as well as the Conference theme about Wargaming and analysis. He started with an early conversation he had with Trevor Dupuy about the usefulness of wargaming for prediction, where Dupuy point out that “if wargaming was useless for prediction, what was the point of doing it?”
This led to quoting Barney Ruble of NWC’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies that Wargames are indicative and that they “speak to us in whispers about potentials” and, of course, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book on Black Swans. What do we mean by prediction? How can anything be incapable of prediction? Ed McGrady’s point about the differences between “precision” (meaning consistency) and “accuracy” (meaning how close to being right) was also mentioned because games tend to be more accurate than precise…
Another point, well made, was the consideration of the “sample” space being examined, such as taking the toss of a coin. You might be tempted to think there were only two alternatives, heads or tails, with a 50% chance of each; but in fact, there is about a 1 in 6000 chance of it landing on its edge. (and with the new chunky British £1 coin a much larger chance I would imagine).
Game do not predict the future, humans do and, as Roger Mason is credited with saying “They narrow the set of possible futures and the value is narrowing that set of possible outcomes.”
Peter’s presentation (here) was excellent—any presentation with pictures of the PAXsims team in it gets my vote—and I look forward to seeing the slides (and stealing many of them) in due course!
This was followed by the Defence Wargaming Panel, with Drs Ed McGrady, Jon Compton, and Margaret McCown. This panel was also very good, avoiding the expected wiring diagrams and organisational backgrounds, and instead covering useful things like the games used for many purposes within the Defense Community. Of special note was the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) Strategic Analysis and Gaming Division (also known as the “Buck Rogers Committee”), where gaming had to have defendable results. This usually means that they are always well researched and result in a series of games (usually 8) in order to generate robust results (but take a long time and are expensive).
Ed McGrady made some very good points about the need to build a community of Wargaming to get better results for the future. The danger of a lack of consistency and skill, and the particular danger of hiring retired senior officers with an axe to grind. He also highlighted the problems with a fascination with technology, and pointed out that a good story is the best and most powerful tool.
Next up was the Game Lab with three possible options:
- Introduction to Wargaming with Joe Saur
- Advanced Naval Wargame Design with Paul Vebber.
- “Gamers’ Circle” (similar to a “Writers’ Circle”) Wargame Design Workshop.
I elected to go to the “Gamers’ Circle” as I wanted to be able to get a look at a number of different ideas, despite my interest in both of the other topics. In this session, we took a look at games to examine Artificial Intelligence with Dr Yuna Wong, a policy researcher at RAND and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Following the inevitable discussion as to the real nature of what we mean by AI (e.g. “actual AI” involving some form of emergent neural networks as opposed to merely complex “If, Then, Else” process systems) and a nice set of comments on the ethics of having useful “Bright Slave” computers and opposed highly dangerous “Moriarty Class” AIs; we set to generating a list of possible uses of AIs for Defence purposes.
Yuna wanted to follow a proper methodology to examine the problem, but time was against us, so we forged ahead as best we could under her guidance and came up with the items below:
This discussion really did demonstrate the value of a diverse set of participants (including civilians) as there was clear evidence of “group think” from the military taking part. The idea of internet based-AI and “AI in a box” that you take to a problem to plug it in for analysis purposes (such as a city power grid) was something very different to the sort of discussions I have been involved with in the past.
I really liked the idea of “Route Proving AI” – mixing driverless cars with the Husky vehicle mounted mine detection system.
With the help of others, I was able to come up with a “one-shot” (non-repeatable to the same audience) game that could be useful in the classroom for discussing AI and Cyber-related topics. I also hope to be able to share this with PAXsims shortly.
This was followed by the Commercial Wargaming Panel, with Dr Web Ewell, Dr Chris Cummins, Uwe Eickert and Dr James Sterrett. Commercial wargames can be seen as “part-task trainers for professional wargames” and I also enjoyed this panel (although, again, I did not expect to) with insights into morale coming from the miniatures community, and call to arms from Uwe for simple, approachable rules (with no “rule exceptions”), engaging mechanics, with little or no “waiting time”; and attractive, easy to handle, components. With regard to the use of computer games for Defense, there was the admission that 90% were crap and of the 10%, 90% of those had nothing readily relevant for defense.
Games mentioned of note were: Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (board game), Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater (board game) and Burden of Command (tactical leadership PC game).
This was followed by Wargame Playtesting (and pizza!) in Breckenridge Hall.
This started with the International Panel with Scott Chambers, Hans Steensma, John Curry, Dr Hiro Akutsu and myself. John Curry gave a very good presentation, living up to his admission to being controversial (there was much I agreed with and much I didn’t – but it was good to provoke debate), Dr Akutsu gave a presentation about the high level games (definitely not using the word “war”) taking place in Japan. He also gave the best (and most succinct) answer to a leading question about “Whether Japan is gaming the possible options with relation to the leadership or military organisation of the Democratic People Republic of Korea”: “Yes”.
This was followed by Dr Norman Friedman presenting on the US Navy Wargaming in the Inter-War Period. This was a fascinating presentation which highlighted the difficulties with academic understanding of wargaming, where games were themselves very difficult to preserve, as opposed to papers which were easy; giving rise to a dearth of actual Wargaming material, submerged in a sea of paper articles. He pointed out the importance of Newport being a “safe to fail” environment with “Chatham House rules” and effective security. This was an organisation where the teaching was conducted with everyone together (the instructors were mainly the same rank as the students), teaching them how to think against opposition and the students themselves were researchers into the problems being studied.
Some failures were highlighted, such as the understand of the role of fanatical bravery (Kamikaze), political factors largely left out and important economic factors being ignored. There were particular successes, such as the experiments to increase existing carrier capacity, carriers designed to be repaired, circular cruiser formations, the pipeline for replacement pilot training as well as the need for amphibious and ASW capabilities.
Next was a talk from Matt Caffrey on Wargaming Impacts. His central theme was the question of whether wargaming provides an “edge” in warfighting. He illustrated his talk with comments on the Wars of German Unification, better quality wargaming and in greater depth, after WW1 and the decrease in Wargaming following WW2. His talk was illustrated with a number of good anecdotes, but I fear this was not the compelling evidence needed for the operational analysts in the audience.
We then had Keynote 2 with Dr John Hanley on the topic of Advancing Wargaming and Analysis as Distinct yet Complimentary Tools. This was an interesting talk, if a little hard to follow at times. I liked the thought process that took the number of possible states available to a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors (236) and worked out that in a force on force engagement using a computer the size of the Universe and computing for the length of time since the Big Bang, it would only be possible to fully analyse the totality of 12 participants. The conclusion being that there is no analytic way to calculate all possible alternatives to a problem, so wargaming is needed.
This was then followed by three Working Groups:
- Wargaming and Analysis with Yuna Wong and Bill Lademan.
- Wargaming for an Innovation Edge with Matt Caffrey and Tim Moench.
- Educating Wargamers with James Sterrett, Joe Saur and Tim Wilkie.
I elected to go to the Educating Wargamers session as it was squarely in my area of interest. It turned out to include Wargames for Education as well, which made the session even better. It was conducted with a number of practiced staff presenting their experiences and advice on the subject before a general discussion.
This was one of the best sessions for me, so engaging that I forgot to take notes most of the time. There were some general guidelines, however, that came out:
- Boardgame Geek (BGG) is your friend.
- Don’t use a game with a BGG rating of less than 7, unless you wrote it.
- End the game before someone wins (avoiding the “I lost therefore the game is crap” reaction).
- Make sure the game is really simple.
- Make sure you can run the game in the time (half the time for the game, the rest for the discussion).
- You can use a YouTube training video as homework the night before – but be careful!
- We need a “Wargaming for Dummies” instruction guide spelling out how to do it.
The result was that all present wanted to get a “bibliography” of commercial games for education. I volunteered to put such a thing together and publish the list, along with PAXSims, so expect a questionnaire in your inbox at a later date.
The final day saw reports on the Working Groups.
Wargaming and Analysis divided into 6 sub-groups:
- Concerns about Battle Damage fixation and no real focus on plan analysis.
- Attempts to do more analysis with fewer resources.
- Connecting the beginning and end states with a coherent narrative.
- Analysis baked into the entire process.
- Quantification of morale and competence.
- synchronizing requirements between various organisations in the acquisition process.
There was a general understanding that analysis is integral and essential to the process, but not easy to achieve and especially difficult in games that focus on “soft” issues. There was a recognition that there was a tendency to measure what is easy to measure, with scant regard to the overall importance.
The Wargaming for an Innovation Edge session concluded that wargaming was good for innovation and, while not every problem is solvable, wargaming can be used to help provide mitigation. “Wargames are a wind-tunnel for innovation” (can you tell the Air Force was involved?).
This was followed by the Synthesis Group with the task of providing a summary report for the sponsors. This was run by the inimitable Dr Stephen “I may be an asshole, but that doesn’t make me wrong” Downes-Martin in his usual arresting style. If you don’t pass your slide packs to Tim Wilkie as soon as possible, you will be in trouble…
We then had Closing Remarks and the Hot Wash.
The Connection 2017 is due to take place on or about 17 to 20 July 2018 at the National Defense University in Washington. This will be a problem for foreigners like me, as currently special access clearance is required to enter the facility, and obtaining authority to travel to Washington is always an issue due to the expense of accommodation and the perception of a conference taking place in the US Capital.
Overall this year’s Connections was the best yet for me. Quantico is easy to get to, yet far enough away from the capital to make the business case easy. The facilities are excellent and the Marine Corps ethos is similar to the UK military, so I feel right at home.
There were hardly any “eyesight tests by organisational wiring diagrams”, few impenetrable slides full of US defense-specific abbreviations and no propaganda presentations about what particular organisations are doing or planning to do in the future. It was squarely on-message and, noting the comments I made last year about the scale and narrow specialisation of some areas of US wargaming needing repeated visits to make sense of it all, this was the first Connections that I would whole-heartedly recommend to a first-timer.
It still has a little “folksy charm” where the programme doesn’t quite spell out what is happening in the evenings where the more reticent participant might get left behind and miss out, but overall it was the best Connections yet!