Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: September 2017

Operation Overmatch


Operation Overmatch is an initiative by the US Army to harness gamers and gameplay to explore the future development of weapons and systems.

According to an August 23 press release from the US Department of Defense:

Operation Overmatch is a gaming environment within the Early Synthetic Prototyping effort. Its purpose is to connect soldiers to inform concept and capability developers, scientists and engineers across the Army.

“What we want is two-way communication, and what better medium to use than video games,” said Army Lt. Col. Brian Vogt, ESP project lead with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capabilities Integration Center.

Encouraging Soldier Innovation

Through a collaborative effort between TRADOC, U.S. Army Research and Development Command and Army Game Studio, Operation Overmatch was created to encourage soldier innovation through crowd-sourcing ideas within a synthetic environment.

“Soldiers have the advantage of understanding how equipment, doctrine and organization will be used in the field — the strengths and weaknesses,” said Michael Barnett, chief engineer at the Army Game Studio and project lead for Operation Overmatch. “And they have immediate ideas about what to use, what to change and what to abandon — how to adapt quickly.”

Within Operation Overmatch, soldiers will be able to play eight versus eight against other soldiers, where they will fight advanced enemies with emerging capabilities in realistic scenarios.

Players will also be able to experiment with weapons, vehicles, tactics and team organization. Game analytics and soldier feedback will be collected and used to evaluate new ideas and to inform areas for further study.

The game is in early development, Vogt said, but interested troops can visit for more information.

One of the benefits of collecting feedback through the gaming environment within ESP is the ability to explore hundreds — if not thousands — of variations, or prototypes, of vehicles and weapons at a fraction of what it would cost to build the capability at full scale, Vogt explained. A vehicle or weapons system that might take years of engineering to physically build can be changed or adapted within minutes in the game.

“In a game environment, we can change the parameters or the abilities of a vehicle by keystrokes,” he said. “We can change the engine in a game environment and it could accelerate faster, consume more fuel or carry more fuel. All these things are options within the game — we just select it, and that capability will be available for use. Of course, Army engineers will determine if the change is plausible before we put it in the scenarios.”

The game currently models a few future vehicles to include variants of manned armored vehicles, robotic vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. The scenarios are centered on manned/unmanned teaming at the squad and platoon level in an urban environment. Through game play, soldiers will provide insights about platform capabilities and employment.

You will find more on the initiative at TRADOC,  Task & Purpose, and the project’s Facebook page.

US Army War College: Gaming in Education

On July 22 the US Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership hosted a panel discussion on “Gaming in Education,” with a focus on wargaming. You’ll find a video of the event below.

The panel included Peter Perla (CNA), James Lacey (Marine Corps War College), David Lai (US Army War College), and James Sterrett (US Army Command and General Staff College).

You’ll find more on it here. Many thanks to LTC Joseph Chretien for passing this on.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 24 September 2017


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (or not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to our readers.


PAXsims has previously mentioned the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross on videogames and humanitarian law. Back in 2011, we noted the kerfuffle about an ICRC research project on this, and criticized much of the commentary on it for being misinformed or misguided. We’ve also covered work by the American Red Cross on the same topic.

Recently, Bohemian Interactive released new downloadable content for the Arma 3 first person shooter, Laws of War—a product of collaboration on the issue with ICRC.

Half the net revenues from the sale of Laws of War will be donated to the ICRC.

At Polygon, Charlie Hall provides more detail on the initiative:

…the ICRC quietly began to reach out to game developers for a dialogue.

“We sent a letter, an official letter from my director, to many major studios inviting a discussion,” Rouffaer said. Many of those letters were ignored, and what few conversations there were the ICRC is largely unable to discuss.

“The video game industry in general is not necessarily very happy to make public that we have conversations,” he said. “They are afraid of being seen with an organization like us, or a humanitarian organization in general. They think their gamers or their fans will get scared that their games will turn into training courses or that morality, as they say, will take over everything and games will not be about shooting anything anymore. That they’ll turn into simulations where you are delivering meal powder to babies.”

But one studio responded with a thoughtful letter of their own: Bohemia Interactive.

“One day, I got this long message from Ivan Buchta, a game designer at from Bohemia Interactive who really took the time to write a lot of things.”

Before long, Rouffaer was headed to Prague for a face-to-face meeting and a presentation to the Arma 3 development team about IHL. It was, by and large, the very same presentation Rouffaer gave to his students in armies around the world.

It is that presentation that inspired the Laws of War DLC. In it, players take on the role of an international humanitarian aid worker. They are tasked with clearing unexploded ordinance from the same battlefields which they fought over in Arma 3’s base game. In the roughly five-hour mini-campaign, players see that fictional conflict from all sides, including from the perspective of civilians caught in the crossfire.

One irony of the DLC is that in order to fully portray the horrors of war the team at Bohemia Interactive had to design a new and controversial weapon system for the game. Cluster munitions are singular weapons that break apart before impact, spreading hundreds of tiny bomblets over a large target area. Their use was banned by more than 100 countries in 2008.

In Laws of War, players will witness the aftermath of the use of cluster munitions. Years after the fighting is over, unexploded ordinance still litters the battlefield and players must carefully remove it.

The decision to include prohibited weaponry was difficult for Rouffaer, but be believes that it created a necessary outcome for players.

“Back when I was playing six hours of video games per day for the ICRC,” Rouffaer said, “I was also talking at the time with quite a few people from the armed forces. They were not comfortable at all with this kind of stuff that I was finding in those games, When you are a soldier you know your job. You know what to do. You know what is legal, what is illegal. And then, because of a game, suddenly people believe that you are a butcher and you are kind of a cowboy and do whatever you want on the battlefield? It’s much more complex than that.

“I’m pretty sure that before this DLC, quite a few of the gamers who played Arma 3 had no clue that there were rules that soldiers had to follow.”

By creating prohibited cluster munitions as an in-game asset, and by also teaching the controversies surrounding their use, Rouffaer believes that gamers have a more complete picture of modern warfare for the first time….



The 2017 Connections Australia professional wargaming conference will be held on 11-13 December at the University of Melbourne. Registration details can be found here.


At his blog Ludic Futurism, Brian Train reports on his recent participation in the Connections UK wargaming conference, among other things.



Don’t forget that the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Special Wargaming Workshop will be held at the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia 17 to 19 October 2017:

This year’s workshop will expand on work begun in last year’s highly successful workshop and magnify the theme of “Learn by Doing.” This year’s workshop will be more tailored to meet the needs of participants and continue to develop the pool of wargamers within DoD and MORS. It will include two working groups for Master level game designers, two seminars for Apprentice and Journeymen level game designers, and multiple games or series of games designed for each level of experience/understanding of participants.

Two guest speakers include Mr. James Dunnigan and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva.

+ The groups available are:

• Group 1 – Wargaming Integration Process (Open to all Experienced Wargamers and Operations Analyst)
• Group 2 – Validity and Utility of Wargaming (Chair Invitation Only)
• Group 3 – (Seminar A) How to employ proper adjudication techniques in wargaming (Journeymen level game designers)
• Group 4 – (Seminar B) Structured Analytic Techniques (US Government/Military only)
• Group 5 – Introduction to complete neophyte to wargaming (little to no experience with wargaming)
• Group 6 – Matrix Style Wargame
• Group 7 – Cassandra Project Wargame
• Group 8 – Title X Wargame


 MORS Member  Non-Member
US Government or FVEY Government Active or
Civilian Employee (valid active duty or civilian
email required)
 Free Free
 US Government Contractor/All Others  $250  $350



Earlier this month, the folks at FiveThirtyEight published an article on game theory and nuclear deterrence that included an interactive game that readers could play to illustrate the concept. The results are now in, and they don’t look pretty:

As of Wednesday afternoon, FiveThirtyEight readers had played this game nearly 200,000 times and the results are in. They are calamitous. The median submission was 33, the mean was 43 and the most common entry was 100 — in other words, uncompromising aggression. Disaster occurred over 20 percent of the time and nearly $2,000 was destroyed, on average, per game.

As the follow-up article explains, part of this may be a framing problem—people don’t gamble in thought experiments the way they do with real money, or real lives.

At least, we hope they don’t…


Brant Guillory reminds us of all the cool stuff included in The GrogCast:

The GrogCast is up over 60 episodes now, including some appearances by a handful of pros who discuss how commercial wargaming and their day jobs interact.

While not all of the content is immediately applicable to the professional wargaming realm, there’s certainly ideas and inspiration in there for any number of current topics.

You can listen to them here, or via iTunes.



On September 5, European Union defence ministers took part in a cyber wargame. Reuters continues the story:

In the simulation, hackers sabotaged the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean and launched a campaign on social media to discredit the EU operations and provoke protests.

Each of the defense ministers tried to contain the crisis over the course of the 90-minute, closed-door exercise in Tallinn that officials sought to make real by creating mock news videos giving updates on an escalating situation.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the “extremely exciting” war game showed the need for EU governments to be more aware of the impact of cyber attacks on critical infrastructure in the EU.

“The adversary is very, very difficult to identify, the attack is silent, invisible,” Von der Leyen told reporters. “The adversary does not need an army, but only a computer with internet connection”.

After a series of global cyber attacks disrupted multinational firms, ports and public services on an unprecedented scale this year, governments are seeking to stop hackers from shutting down more critical infrastructure or crippling corporate and government networks.

“We needed to raise awareness at the political level,” Jorge Domecq, the chief executive of the European Defence Agency that helped organize the exercise with Estonia, told Reuters.



Wondering what’s going on with the ICONS Project? Check out their September newsletter.


At Active Learning in Political Science,  Chad Raymond has posted a three-part series on game design as a classroom activity:


The next issue of CounterFact magazine (Issue 7) will feature Islamic State: War in Syria (ISWS) —a follow-on to Javier Romero’s earlier Islamic State: Libya.


Review: Defence Wargaming Handbook

The following has been written for PAXsims by Dr. James Sterrett, Chief of Simulations & Education in the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College’s Directorate of Simulation Education. The review reflects his personal views only, not those of CGSC, the Army, or the United States government. 


Defence Wargaming Handbook (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, UK Ministry of Defence, 2017). Free online.

The Wargaming Handbook intends “to provide context and guidance” and “introduce the topic” of wargaming, and succeeds admirably at these tasks.  It strikes a judicious balance between championing the value of wargaming, warning of the risks when it is done poorly, consistently guiding the reader towards good practice in order to avoid those risks. The Wargaming Handbook’s clarity and simplicity should ensure it an enduring place as a primer on the fundamentals of wargaming.

Successful wargames are a combination of science and art, as are successful operations. Wargames must not be designed to reinforce preconceived answers to a problem. [p. 21]

The Handbook opens with a brief history of wargaming before continuing on to define wargaming and explain its elements, applications, strengths—and, critically, its limitations.  Chapter 2, “Wargaming fundamentals”, provides guidance on setting up and running a wargame, from purposes to the roles of the directing staff and the participants.  Both carefully distinguish between the two different purposes to which wargames are put, training or analysis.

Chapter 3, “Wargaming types, variants and contexts”, succinctly covers definitions of various kinds of wargames and where they are best used, leading to Chapter 4, “Wargaming process”, which provides an overview of the life cycle of wargames.  Chapter 4 usefully distinguishes between the lifecycle of training wargames and analytical wargames, and manages to do this without either repetitious material or introducing confusion into the overall discussion.


Nearly a third of the Handbook is devoted to nine case studies covering situations ranging from education to operational planning, ranging from two to four pages each.  Each provides context, activities conducted, and outcomes.  These concrete examples should help not only with thinking through the conduct of possible wargames, but also with understanding what a given type of wargame may be able to deliver. The Handbook also provides a glossary and some suggested further reading, from which springs perhaps the only criticism: that it references PAXSims without providing a URL.  In addition to the topics already mentioned, the Handbook is shot through with well-chosen illustrative examples and quotations to help drive home its points.

Knowing that they were facing an adversary at least as intelligent as they were, and one who had considered the tactical problem for as long as they had, almost inevitably resulted in a hasty revision to the students’ initial plans. The revised plans were usually more flexible and robust, which demonstrated the value of an intelligent enemy player in the planning process. [p. 86]

Readable and useful, the Handbook accomplishes its purpose admirably and should prove fit for purpose in the UK and beyond for many years.  Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it: I intend to to use it in the classes I teach on wargaming.

James Sterrett



Wanted: wargame analyst (US DoD)

SAGDThe US Department of Defense is currently advertising for a wargaming analyst:

As a Wargaming Analyst at the GS-0301-15 some of your typical work assignments may include:

  • Serves as the Senior Wargaming Analyst for the development, execution, and analysis of war games and seminars pertaining to national security and force planning.
  • Serves on, and regularly leads, multi-disciplinary teams of O-6s/GS-15s for the design development and execution of joint war games, workshops, seminars, and integrated analysis pertaining to national security, strategic-level policy, the role of military power and force planning.
  • Designs, develops, executes and facilitates war games; analyzes event results and develops key insights and observations; and prepares final reports and briefings for division leadership and 4-star and civilian equivalent senior officials.
  • Recommends changes to war games based on studies and analyzes that are conducted post-event.
  • Serves as the Senior Facilitator for O-6/GS-15 through 4-star group discussions, seminars and wargames.
  • Incumbent is responsible for wargame facilitation, development and execution. Incumbent is responsible for preparing all game materials, interfacing with the game sponsor and participants, participating in the execution of the game, and analyzing game results and preparing final reports for senior officials.
  • Responsible for the ‘facilitator’ training of the Division’s apprentice- through senior-level military and civilian wargamers.
  • Coordinates throughout the Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Interagency, National Security Council, Intelligence Agencies, Services and top level schools (war colleges) for the development of wargames as well as the development of new methodologies and the enhancement of existing SAGD capabilities.
  • Prepares and coordinates on assigned taskings in the Joint Staff Action Processing System – Modified (JSAP-M) and its follow-on system when implemented.
  • Performs other duties as assigned.

This announcement is open to: Current Civilian Joint Staff Employees in the Competitive Service (In Commuting Area); Displaced employees (Interagency Career Transition Assistance Plan – ICTAP eligible) within the Local Commuting Area; and individuals eligible for the following Special Appointing Authorities: Veterans with a disability rating of 30% or more, Veterans Employment Opportunities Act (VEOA) and Individuals with Disabilities.

 You’ll find the full advertisement at USAJOBS. You’ll need to be a US citizen with a TS/SCI.

KCL War Studies podcast: Using Wargaming to Avoid Real-World Conflict


Ivan Seifert at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, has put together a podcast on “Using Wargaming to Avoid Real-World Conflict.”

What is a wargame? Who should be playing wargames and why? How can simulating real-world events help to avoid real-world conflicts?

In this podcast, we are bringing you five exclusive interviews with organisers and participants of this year’s Connections UK conference. The interviewees are Major Tom Mouat, Professor Philip Sabin, Patrick Kwasi Brobbey, Dr Anja van der Hulst, and Commander Matt Payne.

The Connections UK is a conference dedicated to wargaming. This conference was hosted by the School of Security Studies and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

For more information about the conference, visit or read this BBC article

You’ll find it here.

Humanitarian and Disaster Response Simulation Training

Humanitarian U will be running a humanitarian training course and simulation in the Vancouver area on 19-22 October 2017. You’ll find full information below.

Van SimEx flyer_A


DS header

The DIRE STRAITS megagame was held on September 5 at King’s College London, and formed part of three days of activities, panel discussions, and break-out sessions at the Connections UK professional wargaming conference. You’ll find my overall report on the conference here, and a BBC report on the game here.

In this blog post I thought I would reflect a little on the exercise: the rationale and objectives for the game, the scenario, game design choices, how it all went on the day, and what (if any) substantive policy lessons we can draw from it.


Game Objectives

Connections UK first held a megagame as part of the conference programme in 2016, when Jim ran War in Binni—a civil war scenario set in a fictional country. It proved very popular with participants, who expressed a desire that the conference organizers do something similar for 2017.

However, since Connections is about improving the art and science of wargaming, and most of the participants are folks who participate in, design, or facilitate professional wargames (or other serious games), we thought that this time we might try to simulate a real, near-future situation. This is a more difficult challenge: the game designer needs to accurately reflect reality, and cannot play around with that reality solely to create more interesting game dynamics.

Complicating all this were the practical requirements of the event:

  • There would be more than 100 participants, and so the game had to accommodate this many roles and sub-roles. Everyone needed to be engaged and involved.
  • Related to this, we wanted people to enjoy themselves. Quite apart from whatever insight the game might offer into wargaming and its subject matter, it also served as a conference ice-breaker and networking opportunity.
  • Participants would have a wide range of subject matter expertise and wargaming experience.
  • The game would take up much of the first day, involving around 6 hours of game play (including briefing and lunch).
  • Physical space was rather limited: one large room, and two smaller rooms.
  • There would be no time for pre-reading. The game briefings had to be sufficiently straight-forward to enable everyone to assume their roles with minimal preparation.

As if that wasn’t enough, we later decided to raise the bar a bit higher still by adding an experimental research component to the game. This would examine issues of convergence and divergence in wargame analysis. Specifically, would three different groups of analysts, each observing the same game and with access to similar materials and documentation, reach similar conclusions about the validity of the wargame methodology adopted and the substantive findings of the game? The megagame would give us an opportunity to explore this important question.



Our very first thought was to do a China-Taiwan crisis, which gave rise to the title DIRE STRAITS. However, it soon became apparent that this would not easily sustain 100+ participants. Consequently, we expanded it to include other potential regional crises: North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons; China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea; and growing tensions between India and China. Virtually all of these issues were in the news, and indeed were increasingly so as the summer progressed.

At the same time as we were developing the scenario, we also settled on a central question that the game would address: how would the unpredictability of US policy under the Trump Administration, and the growing strategic power of China, affect crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia? In order to make any such effects clearer, we set the game in early 2020. The Trump Administration was said to have survived the Special Counsel investigation, but suffered political damage. Parts of the Republican Party were in open revolt, and Trump faced a Republican challenger for the 2020 presidential nomination. North Korea was on the verge of resuming major weapons tests, and suffered from growing internal unrest. In Taiwan, revelations of Chinese (PRC) efforts to hack the island’s January 2020 elections had spurred a strong pro-independence backlash there. Just to push things along, we also planned an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for Turn 2 of the game.

Marc Lanteigne (Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University)., who specializes in Chinese and East Asia security issues, was kind enough to review our scenario ideas and confirm it all seemed plausible.




Game Design

Although he might disagree and break into post-traumatic twitches at the mere mention of DIRE STRAITS, it was (as in the past) a sheer joy to be working with Jim on this project. We quickly divided the work between us. I handled the scenario development and team/player briefings, the White House and North Korea subgames, and the “Connections Global News” media unit. He developed the overall game system for the deployment and use of military units, the maps, and most other game components.

03 counters

We took pity on the Royal Navy and let them have the F-35Bs operational on HMS Queen Elizabeth a few months early

In developing the game system we very much emphasized relatively simple rules, with a very general combat model. With one week turns, large aggregate forces, and large areas of the region depicted, there was little need to model individual platforms and weapons system. Moreover, given that we were dealing with a series of crises that might involve more signalling than actual use of force, we decided to stress posture (how prepared and mobilized military forces were) and commitment (willingness to use force in a confrontation).

The maps used a simple system of zonal movement. Again, with one week turns, fine detail was unnecessary.

Teams were typically subdivided into a national leader, a foreign minister, a senior military commander, an intelligence chief, and one or more ambassadors. Each team would issue military orders (movement of forces, as well as changes in posture and commitment) using a  Military Operations Form. Other major decisions (including options presented in the team briefing) were recorded using a Major Decision Form. In order to provide greater insight into goals and perspectives, we also had each national leader complete a Strategic Assessment each turn, while each intelligence chief completed an Intelligence Assessment to identify threats and likely future developments.

koreas map v2.jpg

The Koreas map. Other game maps depicted the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Chinese-Indian border region.

The White House subgame was an essential part of the design. In particular, we needed to recreate the uncertainties and internal power struggles of the Trump Administration. We decided early on not to have a participant playing the President himself, for fear that excessively crazy (or reasonable) behaviour might adversely affect the entire game. Instead, potential presidential policy directions were represented by various Tweets, most of them based on previous statements.

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Members of cabinet and the White House staff each had different policy preferences (anti-globalism, defeating the Republican challenger, confronting China, encouraging diplomacy, projecting American military strength, promoting the Trump brand, achieving a well-run White House, or “Making America Great Again”), and sought to influence the policy by moving various ideas up a snakes-and-ladders -type game board using White House Politics cards. Some of the latter are displayed below.

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White House players who had their favoured policies adopted by the President received Trump points. Amassing these was essential, for periodic staff shake-ups could result in the ouster of the lowest-scoring player. Once a policy was in place in a given issue area, it remained there until replaced. Of course, just as in the real world, US players would have considerable latitude in how to interpret President Trump’s statements.

The North Korea subgame took a very different approach: we didn’t really establish much of a game at all, and asked North Korea Control (Tom Mouat) to improvise if need be. At the DPRK table we placed various displays indicating the various key power centres of the regime, onto which the players placed pawns indicating their loyal cadres. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Leader had the most cadres, and controlled the key positions. However, in the event that the assassination attempt succeeded, we envisaged using matrix-game adjudication to determine the success and outcome of any internal actions. Party Politics cards added some additional richness to this.


Some of the North Korean Party Politics cards.

It was important that lesser players retain support in the Central Committee lest they be purged. Kim Jong-un was also given—partly for fun, but also to simulate the demonstrative displays of public support that sustain authoritarian regimes by projecting omnipotence—a number of Obsequious Loyalty Forms. With these he could set his minions a task each turn, with rewards and punishments for those who exhibited impressive or disappointing revolutionary enthusiasm.

North Korea power structures

One of the North Korea power structures displays, in this case depicting the Korean Workers’ Party. The others depicted the military, the intelligence and security services, and the civil government.

The presence of a complex-looking internal politics game on the North Korean table was also intended to generate a sense of uncertainty and confusion among other teams as to what exactly was going on in Pyongyang.

The US and North Korea subgames might seem a little satirical, and indeed were designed to allow the players to enjoy themselves. However, we were fairly confident that their actual outputs would be quite realistic. Statements from the US President would be rhetorical and unpredictable, reflecting his own views and the intense ideological, political, and personality battles within the White House. Indeed, most were simply restatements or tweak of previous statements made by Donald Trump during the election campaign or since assuming office. North Korean politics would be complex, but opaque to outsiders. This was also a case of designing for our audience, who we knew could appreciate the humour while remaining focused on their simulated tasks.

With regard to our media team (Connections Global News), this Jim and I recruited outside the conference from among experienced megagame players and some of my former political science students (all of whom were veterans of my own intense, week-long Brynania simulation). The media play an absolutely essential role in such games, making sure that players are well-informed by providing a stream of generally reliable information. Jim was able to staff the various Control positions from among experienced gamers attending the conference.


More game materials. Photo credit: Jim Wallman.

When assigning players to teams, we did our best to match subject matter expertise and experience to roles. We were fortunate to have several people with expertise in the East and Southeast Asian security issues among the conference participants.


Game Play

Both Jim and I were very pleased with how it all went. The players remained extremely active and engaged. Team behaviours were all plausible. The Control members did an excellent job, and Connections Global News managed to tweet no fewer than 365 news reports in five hours of play, at a rate of more than one per minute.


The initial CGN game briefing underway. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

The North Korean crisis attracted the most international attention. Kim Jong-un, who survived the assassination attempt thanks to his loyal secret police, approved testing of a multiple warhead version of his ICBM, and then deployed a basic SLBM system on modified conventional submarines. The missile tests took place over Japan, moreover. Each of his decisions was met with rapturous applause from members of his government (although one overly ambitious ambassador did have to be disciplined).


North Korea’s Supreme Leader practices his very best resolute-stare-in-the-face-of-capitalist-neoimperialism.

South Korea, Japan, and the US responded by placing forces on alert. South Korea decided to undertake covert efforts to promote peaceful change in the North. While the DPRK’s Supreme Leader (ably played by Brian Train) projected the revolutionary self-confidence one might expect of the vanguard leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party, I think that as they saw the build-up of military hardware in their neighbourhood they might have been a little anxious as to whether they had overstepped a little.


Players react as CGN reports on a North Korean missile test. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

Unknown to most (except the CIA), South Korea also began secret preparatory work to enable it to launch an accelerated nuclear weapons development programme at some future point, if the need arose. The growing strategic threat from the North was the primary reason for this. However, Seoul was also concerned that US commitments were perhaps less reliable than in the past. This was a concern for Japan too.


Things heat up around the Korean Peninsula. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

Indeed, within the US Administration there was a lively, and often confused, debate over how to respond. Some felt it was essential to send a strong message of US resolve, and indeed at one point US Pacific Command recommended that the US consider sinking a North Korean SSB to send a message. That was quickly ruled out by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. Others argued for caution, arguing if too much pressure was placed on Pyongyang the regime might respond in dangerous ways.


The White House. Photo credit: Connections UK.

When Pyongyang briefly hacked Donald Trump’s Twitter account, however, the President was furious. The NSA and US Cyber Command responded by briefly shutting down North Korean radio and television.


Inside the White House. Photo credit: Ivan Seifert/KCL.

A key point of difference within the American Administration concerned the role of China. Some favoured diplomatic outreach to Beijing to coordinate policy regarding the Korea crisis. Others felt China’s interests were too different from those of the US. Still others, with an eye on US domestic politics, were eager to advance the President’s trade policy by putting pressure on “#cheatingChina” to make economic concessions. The result was that US policy signals were mixed at best, reflecting as much the tug-of-war within the White House as the evolving strategic crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, the situation grew increasingly fraught, and a subsequent review of national intelligence estimates showed that several countries assessed the probability of war in coming weeks at greater than 50/50.


Everyone on alert. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

US diplomats in their region, however, did their best to pursue a steady course, downplaying some of the President Trump’s more provocative statements and working with regional actors. China, Russia, and the US met to resolve the crisis, while both North and South Korea took steps to de-escalate the situation. The US also took the decision to expand and accelerate deployment of a range of ant-ballistic missile (ABM) systems (THAAD, Aegis, and GBD/GBI) to offset North Korea’s growing capabilities.


Game play underway at CGN headlines are displayed on the room monitors. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

While all this was going on, the Taiwanese team—angered by the “Chrysanthemum Conspiracy” election hacking scandal—pushed for greater Taiwanese independence from the People’s Republic of China. When efforts to win observer status at the United Nations were blocked by China in the Security Council, efforts shifted to the General Assembly. At the same time, a constitutional reform process was announced, with considerable public support. Taipei hoped that Beijing would be too distracted by the Korea crisis to respond forcefully to these moves. France was particularly outspoken in supporting Taipei’s efforts, including a promise of arms sales.


Tensions grow in the Taiwan Strait. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

The PRC’s response was rather less severe than one might have expected, Nonetheless, it did begin a build-up of naval forces in the Taiwan Strait, and sent a warning shot in the form of a massive cyberattack that disrupted internet traffic across the island. The US dispatched a carrier task force to the area, and President Trump at one point tweeted apparent support for Taiwan’s UN bid. However, back in Washington another heated debate was underway. Some favoured supporting democratic Taiwan. Other advocated abandoning President Tsai to win greater support from Beijing on the Korea issue. In the UN, the US refrained from actively supporting Taiwanese efforts.

In the South China Sea, ASEAN countries found common ground in resisting Chinese maritime claims. Such enhanced regional cooperation seemed to be spurred on by a feeling that American support would be uneven going forward. France and the UK joined several regional countries (Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines) in naval exercises, while Indonesia announced that it would be upgrading military facilities and constructing an airbase in the area. Several countries announced more active measures against Chinese fishing in disputed waters, resulting in a couple of incidents between fishing vessels and coast guards.

Vietnam—adjacent to China, still smarting from China’s 2017 threats against an offshore oil project, and with bitter memories of the 1979 war between the two countries, was especially active in reaching out to other partners. It signed a secret agreement with the US to establish a joint signals intelligence facility to monitor Chinese military communications, concluded an arms deal with Russia, and allowed a Russian naval visit in conjunction with planned joint oil exploration in the area. Beijing was none too pleased by all this, but was preoccupied by other events.


The Vietnamese team issues new military orders. Photo credit: Ivan Seifert/KCL.

Amid all this, border tensions between India and China were quickly resolved. Although military forces were briefly placed on somewhat higher alert, the two countries quickly agreed to accept the status quo and reduce tensions. Thereafter India largely focused on economic development and pursuing amicable relations with its neighbours—except Pakistan, where tensions over Kashmir flared.

And so it was that DIRE STRAITS ended with a few incidents at sea over illegal fishing and a some major cyber-attacks, but no open warfare. This, I think, was a very plausible outcome—although the Chinese response to signs of greater independence by Taiwan were rather less forceful than I imagine their real-world response would be. While it all might seem surprisingly peaceful in retrospect, many countries spent much of the game expecting war to erupt at any minute.

We also saw the President’s beleaguered Chief of Staff dismissed from his post amidst White House intrigue, and his overwhelmed Secretary of State resign at the end of the game rather than be fired.


Broader Lessons

After all of that, what conclusions might be drawn from the game concerning both the topic under examination, and the use of megagames as a serious gaming method?

Despite the various requirements imposed by the conference and venue, I do think the game generated some insight into current policy challenges. Specifically:

  • US policy under the Trump Administration is much less predictable than under any other president in modern times, a function of both the President’s mercurial and populist political instincts, and the clash between differing priorities and world-views within the White House. True, we had designed the game system to encourage this, but none of it was predetermined, and players could have taken a more cooperative route (as they did when deciding to increase the American investment in ABM systems). As White House Control, I was pleased to see how realistically and enthusiastically participants role-played their roles. Debate centred around different political views and goals, and not the manipulation of game mechanics. Domestic political concerns often trumped geopolitics. In short, if one builds a game system that models the existence of factions, rivalries, and differences within the current White House, one gets game outputs that look very much like current US foreign policy.
  • The mixed and sometimes wildly oscillating signals coming out of Washington do less damage than might be the case because they are quietly spun, nuanced, and moderated by cabinet officials and ambassadors in the field. In DIRE STRAITS the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State, and various ambassadors played a key role in this. Indeed, it was precisely because he spent so much time trying to patch over problems arising in Washington that our simulated Secretary of State found himself with little influence in the Oval Office and was ultimately sacked.
  • Despite this, uncertainties in US policy generate anxiety among American friends and allies. Neither South Korea nor Japan seemed to feel they could fully rely on Washington, as evidenced by the former secret decision to prepare a potential nuclear weapons programme. Taiwan was never quite sure how much latitude and US support it had, and Beijing was also left guessing about American commitment to the “One China Policy.” ASEAN countries increased regional security cooperation in part because US backing seemed uncertain. Several countries diversified their relations to counterbalance China and hedge their bets regarding American support.
  • The game clearly showed that there are no good policy options regarding North Korea’s nuclear capacity, only less-bad ones. Everyone was wary of pushing Pyongyang too far. Toppling the Kim Jong-un regime was seen by most (but not all) as dangerous, since it risked retaliation or chaos in a nuclear-armed state. In this sense, Pyongyang’s nukes demonstrated their value as a deterrent. Rather than punitive strikes or intervention, a messy mix of threats, deterrence, sanctions, and diplomatic dialogue appeared to offer the best path to crisis management. US-Chinese cooperation was important, but undermined by mutual suspicion, as well as tensions between Washington and Beijing on other issues (such as trade or the South China Sea). Overall, the game seemed to suggest no meaningful path to denuclearization, a real risk that South Korea (or even Japan) might consider a future nuclear weapons option, and the reality of having to live with a nuclear-armed DPRK while mitigating the threat and deterring North Korean adventurism.

Some of the media team (and me). Photo credit: Patrick Brobbey.

Regarding the game method, there’s not much I would change. There were a few cases where misleading information circulated (CGN initially reported Taiwan was successful in its bid for UNGA observer status, and had to correct this—no such vote was held, and they would have likely lost), but overall the information flow and quality was excellent. The subgames worked well, and it was noteworthy than many/most non-American players were unaware that “Donald Trump” was a game system rather than a human player until after it was all over. Jim’s decision to dramatically simplify the military/combat system, and to emphasize issues of posture and commitment, was absolutely right. The map displays had just the right amount of simplicity and detail.


The US analytical team. Photo credit: Connections UK.

Longer turns would have been nice—I think we would have had better briefing back to leaderships as well as more considered strategy discussions. However, longer turns would have also meant fewer turns, and we thought it important that there be ample opportunity for players to see the consequence of their actions. We also surprised players by ending the game one turn early to prevent “last turn madness.”


More analysts analyzing. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

We could have had more effective data collection, but here we were limited by the realities of the exercise. Teams did complete our military and major decision forms as required, but strategic and intelligence assessment forms were sometimes forgotten (or lost) in the hustle and bustle. All the news reports were archived, and pictures were taken of each game map each turn to provide a record of the military situation. Members of the three analytical teams freely circulated around the game during play, and were able to listen in on strategy discussions, negotiations, and sundry plotting. I’m eager to see what they will have to say.

* * *

At the moment, it looks like we will be designing another megagame for Connections 2018 (pending the results of the participant feed-back forms). The subject matter, however, has yet to be determined. Ideas, anyone?

Connections UK 2017 report


The annual Connections UK professional wargaming conference was held at King’s College London on 5-7 September. Three member of the PAXsims team (Tom Mouat, Devin Ellis, and myself) were there.


Tom Mouat at the opening of Connections UK 2017. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.



old-fashioned-movie-countdown-title-film-screen-like-hollywood-cinema-one-two-three-55953948.jpgThe first day of the conference included a “Wargaming 101” session for newcomers, but was mainly taken up with the Dire Straits megagame. This involved around 100 participants, and explored near future (2020) crisis stability in Asia in the context of uncertain and unpredictable US policy, and a rising China.

I’ll say much more about that in a future post, but I certainly think it went very well—everyone seem engaged, the game systems held up, and I think the outcomes were, in a broad sense, quite realistic.


Dire Straits about to start. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.

You’ll find a BBC news report on the game here, and Bob Cordery’s account of the game (as Central Sector Map Control) here.


The unforgettable Jim Wallman—who gave his left arm for megagaming—explains what is going on to the BBC. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.



old-fashioned-movie-countdown-title-film-screen-like-hollywood-cinema-one-two-three-55954082.jpgThe second day of Connections UK began with Graham Longley-Brown outlining the growing popularity of wargaming as a method for education, training, and policy analysis. Evidence of growing attention in the UK includes the recent publication by the Ministry of Defence Development, Concepts, and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) of the Defence Wargaming Handbook. He warned, however, that this trend is fragile. Wargaming is far from institutionalized. Current momentum is maintained by a perilously small group of people. The various Connections conferences provide an opportunity to share ideas and build the community.


The panel on UK military wargaming. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.

The first panel examined UK military tri-service wargaming. Lt Col Nigel Jordan-Barber (British Army) discussed Standing Joint Force Headquarters Group Wargaming. Nigel discussed his own background as a hobby wargamer, and his efforts to use these techniques to train soldiers. He encountered uneven interest and support among more senior officers. At SJFHQ he worked with Dstl on developing wargames. PAXsims, AFTERSHOCK, and matrix wargaming were all mentioned too. Regarding the latter, he discussed the BALTIC CHALLENGE matrix game, NASHE MORE, and a joint theatre entry A2/AD wargame. He also noted a number of issues he had encountered: “last turn madness” (whereby players act unrealistically toward the end of a game in an effort to win, or just make things more exciting); the influence of the map on players; the challenge of articulating risk and effect; the importance of addressing second/third order effects and consequence management; and when to use (or not use) wargaming. He found that real scenarios were much more useful in generating interest across the military and other government departments.

Cdr Matt Payne (Royal Navy Maritime Warfare Centre) talked about “The Green Shoots of Royal Navy Wargaming.” As a non-hobby wargamer, he offered his thoughts on the development of RN wargaming in recent years, noting that much is having to be rebuilt from scratch. Most RN officers have little familiarity with the broad spectrum of (potential) wargaming, and even the term “wargaming” can sometimes attract derisive comments about “playing games.” Heavily-scripted TACEX (tactical exercise) seminar gaming has been used for teaching purposes, but they tend to lack much of a creative, adaptive adversarial challenge. As the profile of wargaming increases, it is important that games be of sufficient quality to impress, and thereby strengthen rather than undermine the approach. He also noted that:

  • There is a big jump between being a “gamer” and wargame design.
  • Rolling dice to reflect risk and probabilities often raises naval eyebrows, unless to explain the purpose.
  • The enemy is too often underestimated or portrayed in a cartoonish way that fails to respect their agility and resourcefulness.
  • A culture of wargaming needs to be developed across the Navy, ideally starting with junior officer training.

The MWC has launched two initiatives. Project PROTEUS is aimed at invigorating naval wargaming through a serious of increasingly complex wargames. The games will also contribute to force development analysis. The biggest lesson was the importance of data capture. The Wargame in a Box initiative is a simple and adaptable manual naval wargame. However, when the initial prototype (focusing on the Bab al-Mandab) was sent to ships and other assets across the Navy, there was no response whatsoever—highlighting the problem of receptivity. The game is being further developed to be a more user-friendly flexible rules-based game.

Ed Oates (Royal Navy) discussed “Wargaming in Training: The Road to Recovery,” drawing upon the DSAT (Defence Systems Approach to Training) and training needs assessment. He stressed the importance of clearly identifying the value-added and cost/time-effectiveness of wargaming. The training objectives and learning specifications need to be clear. Trainers need to be effective umpires, facilitators, and adjudicators. Wargamers need to join, and work with, trainers—and make sure that wargaming be seen as a “normal” activity. Umpires and adjudicators need to be trained. There also needs to be military/academic analysis of the learning effects of wargaming.

The final presentation of this session Flt Lt Colin Bell (RAF Air Warfare School) looked at basic air wargaming. Wargaming is underutilized in RAF training. Winged Exile is a basic board wargame to be sent to Air Cadet units that explores air operations and air defence planning, designed to support recruitment, but has broader applicability in revised version to the Basic Air Warfare course. Feedback has been very positive. Colin also discussed a card game he has developed to teach key air warfare concepts, as well as an air mobility game. One key challenge is having the right people in the right places. There also needs to be a spiraled implementation process, with clear training goals.

The entire session was an impressive display of energy, enthusiasm, and innovation, with a great deal of attention to the important issue of understanding both educational objectives and practical challenges. Howard underscored this, as well as the importance of advocacy and developing wargaming competencies.

A short but lively question and answer period followed. From this, and the previous presentations, two thoughts occurred to me.

  • The first concerned the inevitable shortcomings and flaws in any wargame, and especially simple and accessible ones. I think it is important to see these as a potential feature rather than a bug: critical reflection on what a game misses or get wrong can be very useful in encouraging participants to think beyond the game.
  • A second thought concerned the “safe to fail” environment of wargaming. The point is often made that it is better to lose simulated casualties, or otherwise make mistakes, in a gaming environment where no actual lives are at stake, and from which lessons can be learned. That is undoubtedly true. It is also the case that participants will be reluctant to experiment or be truly innovative if they think that poor wargame performance will affect their course or career progression. For that reason, the usual advice is not assess performance to avoid such a chilling effect on participants. But what happens if game performance generates serious red flags about suitability for deployment or command? I’ve certainly seen performances that have led me to have serious concerns as to whether a player should ever be placed in a conflict environment.

The second plenary session of the day looked at US and UK military and diplomatic wargaming initiatives. Colin Marston (Dstl), who chaired the session, offered some initial comments on the growing official/senior attention to wargaming in the UK. He pointed to a series of forthcoming e-surveys intended to assess UK (and allied) capability and interest in wargaming methods.

The first speaker was Phil Pournelle (Long Term Strategy Group), on “US Ongoing Wargaming Initiatives.” Appropriately enough, he started with a shameless plug for the forthcoming MORS wargaming special meeting (17-19 October). He then went on to discuss recent developments in the US. The March 2016 “practitioners summit” highlighted the lack of master game designers, the need to identify best practices, and the need to integrate wargaming into larger DoD analytic processes. This led to the establishment of the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group, as well as sponsorship of the MORS workshops. The latest (2017) JP 5-0 on Joint Planning contains an updated and expanded definition of wargaming and identification of best practices. He stressed the importance of introductory games to produce novice wargamers, as well as classes and certificate programmes to bring wargamers up to the apprentice level. He also discussed various categories and characteristics of wargames.


Phil Pournelle emphasizing the importance of supporting the professional development of wargame designers. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.

Matt Caffrey (US Air Force) took a longer-term view of improving wargaming. Often efforts to assess the utility of a wargame are too narrow: impacts have many causes, and impacts may take decades to become clear. However, wargaming may offer insight into how to gain or expand an edge.

The next presentation looked at gaming in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The speaker suggested that traditional hobby wargames aren’t necessarily the best model for games that explore diplomatic and political issues. There has been interest and even enthusiasm at FCO for gaming, there is also some suspicion. Moreover, staff don’t always have enough time to plan or participate in a game, given other demands. One recent game on presidential succession in an African state was successful, but despite enthusiastic endorsement by the sponsoring Ambassador, there was no take-up from other posts or units in the FCO for similar gaming.

He noted that matrix games are easy to set up, and generate a chain of plausible actions and events. Matrix games do have limits too. There is reluctance to accept an element of stochastically-influenced adjudication (dice!), or even apply notions of probability and uncertainty to diplomatic outcomes.  More broadly, FCO lacked resources. Foreign ministries are about relationships and less so about doing things. FCO is not adept at planning. There is also a great deal of displacement activity—action for its own sake. What is needed is a relatively simple game that can address process and intra/inter-governmental dynamics.

Finally, Col George Wilson (DCDC) talked about the new UK Defence Wargaming Handbook. The Handbook outlines fundamentals, types, variants, contexts, and processes of wargaming. It is aimed to educate and improve standards across the British military.

The subsequent discussion addressed cooperation between the public and private sector, and the need to tailor game methodologies to audiences and context. I raised a growing pet peeve, namely the extent to which contracting processes and increasing restrictions on visits to military sites inhibit non-nationals and non-officials from contributing to military wargaming.

The keynote address was provided by Howard Body (MoD), which explored the potential contribution of wargaming to defence strategy. It was an insightful and pithy talk, with a frank assessment of opportunities, constraints, process, and pitfalls.

After lunch the first games fair session was held. During the conference, demonstrations of the following games were available:

  • Agricola: The Roman Campaign in Britain, AD 82-84
  • Brief Border Wars
  • Camberley Kriegsspiel
  • Caudillo
  • Colonial Twilight: the French-Algerian War, 1954-62
  • Cyber Strategy Wargame
  • CyberStrike
  • Dogfight
  • Future of Global Salafi Jihad
  • HOSPEX Tabletop: A Field Hospital Simulation
  • Maillot Jaune
  • MaGCK: matrix Game Construction Kit
  • RCAT: A Year in Iraq, 2004-05
  • Strategic level Decision-Making in Disaster Management
  • Winged Exile

I looked on and assisted as Tom Mouat ran a game of A Reckoning of Vultures, from the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK). The game resulted with the revolutionary workers of the National Union of Toilers emerged triumphant—aided, in part, by their seizure of the headquarters of the Ruling Party. The wily head of the Central Security and Intelligence Directory ended up as Vice President, while two generations of Matrixian oligarchs were executed. The scenario is a fictional and rather tongue-in-cheek one, but is intended to demonstrate an array of matrix game techniques.

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Tom Mouat facilitates A Reckoning of Vultures from the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK).


With the President-for-Life on his death-bed, tensions mount in Matrixia. A Reckoning of Vultures/Matrix Game Construction Kit. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.

Unfortunately, because I was involved in running a game I didn’t have a chance to look around. Fortunately Ivan Seifert did, so here are a few of the other games on display:






After the games fair session was over, Charles Vasey offered a lively presentation on “Unprofessional Wargaming,” exploring what recent developments in hobby wargame design might contribute to serious wargame design. Traditional hex-and-counter wargaming is increasingly being supplanted by the “new New.” This is much more visual. Cards play a larger role in games, which provide a great deal of game information. Much of the “new New” is inspired by Eurogaming. More games are cooperative, where the game system provides the adversary. Quite appropriately, the singled out Brian Train’s innovative approach to gaming, as well as Volko Ruhnke and the GMT COIN series. He also noted the increasing interest in asymmetric conflicts, and issues of both war and peacebuilding/stabilization.

This was followed by Paul Strong talking about what has become a favourite topic of mine—“Wargaming the Atlantic Wart,” and in particular the contribution of the women and men of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit. It was a terrific presentation about a set of heretofore unsung wargaming heroes of WWII.

After dinner a second games fair session was held. This time I ran a near-future Israel-Hizbullah matrix game, which we had designed in July during a game design workshop at Dstl and which had been put together using the Matrix Game Construction Kit. The game saw a lot of tit-for-tat actions (Israeli bombing of major Hizbullah weapons shipments, periodic efforts to assassinate key figures), but not a great deal of investment in innovative capabilities. When a larger war started, Israel launched a quick and limited punitive incursion in the Bint Jbail sector without even waiting for reserve units to fully mobilize, inflicted some casualties, then declared victory and left—just as their US allies endorsed a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution. Hizbullah did unleash heavy rocket attacks on Israel, and followed these up with an effective publicity campaign to shore up domestic support, but otherwise found the Israelis retiring before they could do much else.


Israel-Hizbullah War, a game developed using the Matrix Game Construction Kit. Photo credit: Connections UK.

It was not my best-run game. I had started set-up a little late, and the room was rather crowded. Two of the game roles—that of the Lebanese government and (Lebanese/Israeli) civilians—have much less to do than the primary combatants, and while that might be realistic it is undoubtedly less fun for the players concerned.

There was also an extended discussion with one player as to why the game design allowed Israel to do more than Hizbullah. I argued that this was realistic: the IDF had more capability, had (in our game) chosen to initiate major combat operations and therefore started with the initiative, and could coordinate with the US on ceasefire timing. If Hizbullah launched a surprise war much of this would have been negated, but they had chosen not to do so. My interlocutor seemed to think this was all a little unfair—a general gaming principle which may not apply well to asymmetric conflicts. Nevertheless, having long argued that fun contributes to engagement which contributes to serious game quality, I’m forced by the experience to reflect on situations where accurate modelling of a real world situation may require game dynamics that some find frustrating or less than fully enjoyable.

old-fashioned-movie-countdown-title-film-screen-like-hollywood-cinema-one-two-three-55954147.jpgDay 3 started off with a panel on wargaming in education. Mauro Faina discussed his use of wargaming in Italian high school education. He noted some sensitivity about both games in education, and “war.” He was also frank about less than ideal learning outcomes.

Paul Howarth offered a terrific presentation on “education and wargaming: mutually assured development,” highlighting how his interest in hobby wargaming (especially megagaming) and work as a teacher came together in Story Living Games. Schools are looking for games that promote empathy, resilience, a growth/”I can” mindset, and support for British values (democracy, rule of law, and so forth). Targeting students young creates memorable experiences for a broad cross-section of society, before gender roles are too firmly established. His key recommendations: consider the education context; provide accessible, engaging, relevant link to curriculum; and it is important to engage, train, and empower teachers. Echoing Mauro, he also warned that the “wargame” label can be probably be problematic in an educational context.


Nick Bradbeer (UCL/MoD) discussed the use of wargaming to teach naval architecture, in a presentation cowritten with and David Manley (MoD) . A simple naval ship-building and combat game provided an effective method to teach students about issues of detection, vulnerability, and survivability. Student feedback has been positive.

Richard Barbrook (University of Westminster) offered an overview of his work with the Class Wargames group, examining Guy Debord’s The Game of War. This led to development of a course on political simulations and gaming at the University of Westminster.

The next panel examined “simulating the intangible,” chaired by Aggie Hurst (KCL). Jeff Appleget (NPS)and Rob Burks (NPS) explored modelling human terrain. Interest in this arose from looking at irregular warfare, in which relevant populations, not the enemy’s military capability, may be the primary focus of operations. Their efforts to do so rested heavily on the analysis, approaches and doctrine presented in FM 3-24 (now JP 3-24) on Counterinsurgency.


Anjavan der Hulst and Tom Mouat discuss their matrix game experiments. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.

In her presentation, Anja van der Hulst (TNO) stressed the need to be more systematic about the role of emotion in conflict situations. Matrix gaming and megagaming, she suggested, provide one method for doing so. After discussing the range of relevant emotions, she recounted a somewhat disappointing experience with a Baltic Challenge matrix game, which player behaviour was too reactive. After a more substantive briefing in a subsequent game, and more time to consider strategy, game moves and outcomes were much richer. An analysis of vulnerability showed much more activation of grievances. Participants found that while matrix games were not useful for decision-making, they did significantly improve awareness and understanding. In a second experiment they used gaming to examine political and social polarization.

There was a subsequent question about how to avoid introducing or creating biases among participants. Anja and Jeff noted the different ways in which different groups may approach a problem. Tom Mouat (Defense Academy of the UK) pointed to the value of replication with different sets of participants, noting that when something keeps happening (as in our multiple replays of ISIS Crisis) with different groups of players, one can have greater confidence in the validity and significance of the outcome.

After coffee, Brian Train chaired a session on wargame design and analysis. Jim Wallman and I spoke about megagaming, both in general and regarding Tuesday’s Dire Straits megagame. I presented a comprehensive analysis of the methodological strengths and weraknesses of megagaming:

Magegame Connections

…while Jim spoke about the design decisions we had made with Dire Straits. Our point was that megagames were well-suited for games in which imperfect information, fog and friction, coalition politics, and background noise were important aspects of the conflict environment, but less well suited for simulating other sorts of situations.


The panel on wargame design and analysis. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.

Erik Nordstrand (Swedish Defence Research Agency/FOI) talked about wargaming in Sweden. Wargaming is well-established in professional military education at the Swedish Defence University. There remains a shortage of experienced wargamers/trainers/facilitators. Most of the gaming at FOI is done in the defence analysis division. FOI operations research analysts embed and rotate within Armed Forces headquarters. The practical consequences of this is that FOI is problem rather than game-oriented, taskings can change quickly, and resources are limited. Most FOI games are seminar games.

Ivanka Barzashka (KCL) talked about ballistic missile defence, with a focus on a game she had run in May. The games objectives included looking at how aerospace defence affected potential nuclear use, and how two variations of US/NATO BMD might affect Russian behavior and outcomes. She described the game in more detail than I can recount here, but one interesting point was the need to balance player engagement and game purpose. Participants (especially senior ones) can become bored with periods of inaction, or with mundane tasks (like form-filling). As noted earlier, this was an issue reflected earlier when running the Israel-Hizbullah game, in which the Israel and Hizbullah teams have much more engaging (and “fun”) roles than do the Lebanon and civilian teams.


Source: The Economist.

After lunch we held breakout sessions, in which subgroups each separately examined a topic chosen from among future scenarios outlined as part of DCDC’s strategic trends programme. This topic was “The High North.” Aspects of this to be considered included:

  • Climate change, great accessibility.
  • Competing territorial claims.
  • Growing economic importance. Natural resource exploitation.
  • Environmental concerns.
  • NATO cohesion, Denmark-Greenland relations, policy in Iceland.
  • Thinning Russian population in Sibera.
  • Chinese interest.
  • Dispute over Svalbard.

Each group was asked to outline a possible (war)game on the topic. (Groups were also given the choice of considering other topics from the DCDC report Future Operating Environment 2035, but none chose to do so.)

I was in Jim Wallman’s group. We started by discussing the task, and generating ideas. These included, among others:

  • portfolio investment and defence procurement
  • tactical implications of arctic operations
  • resource exploitation
  • increased human settlement
  • effects of technology assessment

After discussion, these were grouped into three clusters:

  1. Technology development and portfolio investment.
  2. Longer-term strategy/resource development/settlement.
  3. Sub-arctic migration.

We broke into subgroups and developed game ideas around these. We then briefed these back to our subgroup, and selected one to be presented to the plenary session. In our group “Settlers of the Arctic” (idea #2 above) won over “De-terraforming Earth” (idea #3, with a strong environmental component on a generational scale), and our own proposal, “Lockmart” (idea #1, which was a two-part game whereby players/teams first managed portfolio investments, and then were required to deal with crises or challenges based on the portfolio they had developed).

Back in plenary session, the winning game ideas from each group were presented:

  • Arctic Goldrush, a game of scrambling for resources (potentially hidden, and possibly in disputed resources).
  • High North Survival, a “ladder” game of trying to survive an incident (air crash, etc) given certain resources that you have or find.
  • Aurora Borealis, a game pitting an unstable confederacy of indigenous nations against various external actors.
  • Settlers of the Arctic, a longer-term area control and access game of resource discovery and exploitation over 50-100 years. The resource endowment of areas would gradually become revealed as the game progresses, and players would be able to make technology investments.
  • 2035 megagame, in which multiple stakeholders compete in a future, more conflictual environment.
  • Something or other (I missed the title), a game of using money and influence to access arctic resources
  • Something else (I’m not sure it had a title), a card-driven game of resource development.

Jim Wallman also gave us an opportunity to briefly present our own game idea.

There were certainly many interesting and innovative game ideas. I was a little concerned, however, that cool game mechanisms sometimes seemed to triumph over purpose or realism/accuracy. Next year it might be a good idea to more fully articulate for the design groups who their intended client is, what the purpose or objectives of the game are, and what constraints there might be (for example, number of participants, available game play time, or physical space).


With that the, the conference came to an end.

It had been a terrific event, and—as with every Connections event I’ve ever attended—I found it both enjoyable and very useful. Quite apart from the panels and gaming, the many tea-breaks provided amble opportunity for casual discussion and networking. I look forward to next year’s conference, which is scheduled for 4-6 September 2018 at KCL.


BBC: Can war games help us avoid real-world conflict?

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The BBC has a report on the recent Dire Straits wargame at King’s College London, part of this year’s Connections UK professional wargaming conference.

North Korea has just fired off an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan. Japan is uncertain as to whether the US wants to start a war.

It’s trying to find out why a massive American naval fleet has just arrived in the region. But it’s not getting any answers. There’s chaos in the White House as various factions try to influence the president.

Some of this might sound familiar. But this is not real life. It’s the scenario in a war game called Dire Straits, set in 2020.

And it’s being acted out, not on the world stage, but in a lecture theatre and seminar rooms at King’s College, London.

I’ll be posting a full report on both Dire Straits and Connections UK in the coming days.

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